All entries for April 2009

April 30, 2009

Coming up

I've had a couple of quiet theatregoing weeks, but it all kicks off again tonight. First, to Warwick Arts Centre for WUDS' new production of 'Tis Pity She's a Whore. I've read the play, but never seen any Ford live, so very much looking forward to this.

Tomorrow it's a double bill - an academic student project first, with The Tempest set on an oil-rig, and then the RSC's new Winter's Tale in the evening.

Coming up in the next few weeks: Cheek by Jowl's Andromaque at WAC, the Globe's Romeo, the RSC As You Like It, a student Dream, and then a particularly busy single week into which I'm squeezing the Globe's As You Like It, the National's All's Well, the RSC's Caesar and the Old Vic's Winter's Tale. Finally, I'll be wrapping up the academic year with the broadcast version of the National's Phedre, with the RSC Errors and Donmar Hamlet to look forward to before my summer hols.

There's still more to book, too. In particular, I don't know where or when I'm going to catch the Globe's two touring productions, though I hope to see both. There's the Globe's Troilus to book for (something tells me there'll be no urgency on advance bookings for that one), and I haven't decided yet if I'll return to Love's Labour's. The Regent's Park Open Air Theatre is only doing one 'adult' Shakespeare this year, Much Ado, with a kiddy Tempest also in rep. There are a few small-scale things as well, but hopefully that'll be mostly it for the summer, which will allow me to catch up on all the journal reviews I've agreed to write. Oh, and write my thesis.

April 25, 2009

The Bardathon as Experiment

I've been prompted recently to think in a little more detail about what The Bardathon actually IS. Why do I write? Who is it for? What is it ultimately trying to do? And so on. The blog is now three years old (my first review, of Nancy Meckler's Romeo and Juliet, dates back to April 11th 2006), and during discussion at the 3rd International Shakespeare and Performance Colloquium the question was yet again brought up of the future of theatre reviewing, and how academic criticism can continue to survive and be meaningful.

There are a great many theatre blogs out there. This one is, however, in many ways different, in intention if not always in practice. So, I'm going to use this post to remind myself of some of the key principles and points of this blog, and hopefully make some conclusions about its future.

1. This is an academic experiment

The original intention of this blog was to support my MA in English Literature at the University of Warwick, by chronicling my experience of the Complete Works Festival. In doing so, I would be thinking academically about the plays, but in a format more associated with journalistic reviewing and web community.

Since then, I have tried to pitch the blog as, effectively, a bridge between two forms of reviewing often considered diametrically opposed - the academic review (months after production, concerned with history, interpretation, critical engagement etc.) and the journalistic review (immediate, impressionistic, evaluative, commercial). Its my belief that academic reviewing too often loses the thrill of the theatrical moment, the instant emotional and gut impact of a performance. My hope is that, by responding instantly and publicly to a performance, but at the same time considering those aspects which are historically and academically important, I can create a useful hybrid of the two.

2. The 'goodness' of a production is not what is important.

While it is impossible to completely avoid value judgments, and inevitably I end up giving a general impression of whether a production was worth seeing or not, it's something I want to try to avoid. I'm not interested in the 'goodness' of a production, I'm concerned with what is interesting, or fresh, or illuminating in it. The most obvious example is in acting. By and large, I'm not concerned with whether Patrick Stewart spoke his lines clearly, commanded the auditorium or failed to convince me of his feelings. I'm concerned with what he did that expanded my understanding of the character and play, that suggested a new interpretation of a line or inverted the usual expectations of how a part is played. It's a fine, fine line, and one that I myself need to tread far more carefully.

I try to remind myself that, when I read reviews of old productions in the archive, I get extremely frustrated by journalistic reviewers giving a simply evaluative criticism of whether an actor was 'good' or not. That's not of interest to the academic reading a production retrospectively. The most important thing is what they did, not what the reviewer thought of it. In many ways, a bad new reading is far more useful to the academic than a good traditional one.

3. Blogging is a developmental and pedagogic activity.

The act of writing itself is important. For me, it's a form of personal development. Through writing reviews, I've spent the last three years developing my own sense of what a review can be, expanding my range and developing my style. The increased awareness of my own writing processes has in turn impacted positively on my writing for conference papers, academic journal reviews and my thesis. Writing has become my way of thinking, and The Bardathon, being my own 'publication', is the place where I can experiment with this.

This experience suggests to me that blog-keeping can be a particularly useful pedagogic exercise, and I've been pleased to see more and more academic groups using blogs individually and communally to chronicle activity and develop group material.

4. It's an open forum...

The ability to allow comments on a blog is a particularly useful one, and the aspect which most sets it apart from the academic community's current reviewing media. This blog has drawn comments from academics, directors, actors, experienced and occasional theatregoers, students, teachers, schoolchildren and even the occasional crazy. A blog has a wide reach, and the breadth of comments has been probably the best thing about this as an experiment. It's my belief that every theatregoer's experience, and their opinion on their experience, is a valid one. It's particularly rewarding to hear from first time Shakespeare viewers, a constituency largely alien to Shakespeare academics. As well as providing a range of insights into a given production, it also allows me an external viewpoint on my own writing, as I see how it provokes people to react.

5. ... but not completely open!

I've only very rarely deleted comments, and then on the grounds of utter irrelevancy (e.g. spam advertising) or because of offensive or aggressive behaviour. Otherwise, I allow most comments to be published openly. However, I also reserve the right to join in the comment stream myself, and normally do.

With completely open online blogs or review archives, comments are largely unmediated and debates can go off in whatever direction they please. This basically allows people an open platform to say whatever they want. However, this is a personal blog, and is moderated by me. While I am happy for views I don't agree with to be expressed, the blog allows me the opportunity to positively challenge these views. To illustrate, I have a particular beef with the words often heard in the reviews of certain broadsheet reviewers, "This is not what Shakespeare would have wanted". If this crops up in my comments, I will usually post a reply to argue that that isn't (and shouldn't be) the remit of most modern theatre directors.

The aim in doing this is to stimulate rather than shut down debate (hence open argument rather than deletion). I don't want the blog to become a stagnant platform for outdated ideas and lazy thinking; I want to challenge the ways in which we "watch ourselves watching Shakespeare" (to borrow a title from an article by Carol Rutter).

6. This is an archive.

I mentioned this earlier, but it deserves its own bullet point. The point of this blog was originally to provide information about productions in the Complete Works Festival which many academics wouldn't get an opportunity to see. There is a lot of (critical) description in my reviews; my opinions will date, but hard information about what was in the production won't. Considering that academics still, usually, have to travel to specific libraries or archives to find out what happened in a particular moment, the idea is that the blog will provide some bits of information that will make discussion of productions that little bit easier. It's also a hope of mine that, if someone is reading the blog to find a piece of information that ISN'T in the review, that they will comment or e-mail to ask for the blanks to be filled in. In a sense, the liveness of the blog format allows for a combination of personal memory and written review which can transcend the boundaries of the actual post.

In a more mundane sense, the blog posts fill the place of notes for me; I stopped keeping notebooks with detailed information a long time ago (hence the sudden jump to longer reviews on the blog). One of the factors in deciding what to write is a consideration of what I myself will want to remember. It's a personal, as well as a public, archive.

7. It's about Shakespeare and his contemporaries.

After the Complete Works Festival, I started to post reviews of all my theatregoing experience; new plays, classics, devised work, even ballet and opera. However, I've more recently realised that this isn't what the blog is useful for. I have a wide interest in all kinds of performance art, but my experience does not allow me to provide anything like the same insight into, say, Beckett or Chekov, that I can into Shakespeare and other early modern dramatists.

'The Bardathon' is the name I chose for this blog, and so I'm going to return to a more focussed approach. Productions of early modern plays, or newer writing based on plays of this period.

8. It goes places where other theatre reviewers don't go.

A particularly enjoyable part of my work is reviewing small-scale performance and, particularly, academic experimentation. My last piece on Tom Cornford's work on reimaginations of Hamlet is a case in point - it's not professional theatre activity, but it is still of extreme interest to this blog as an academic exercise, as an insight into process, as a reinterpretation and production of a Shakespearean play and as a moment that interacts with history. This activity also, hopefully, will continue to feed into my PhD blog.

9. Quality isn't everything

This is true of productions, but also true of my reviews. I have been very proud of some of my reviews, and extremely disappointed in others. The quality of my writing varies enormously, depending on inspiration, time of day, my mood and the speed at which I require myself to write. I've stopped worrying about this. Ultimately, the blog is a part-time endeavour; I'm not a professional journalist, and my core writing time goes into my PhD and my publications. The blog is designed to be a more informal approach - as good as possible, but I would rather have something written than nothing at all. Even if a piece is patchy, misses important bits or offers clunky analysis, I know it will remain useful to me as a prompt for future thinking about a production. In the academic environment, the pressure is to write wonderfully at all times. However, we all have off days. The very fact that academics will travel miles to watch a scratchy, fixed-camera VHS recording of a play from the back of the gods demonstrates that archive-users will always rather work with something bad than with nothing at all.

It's my hope that my writing continues to improve and develop. However, functionality and accessibility are also key, and within that the blog will always have the best I can offer.

Conclusions: The Future

Where do I go from here? One of the points of this (long!) post is to make myself reconsider my own motives and aims in keeping this blog. The renewed focus on early modern drama is one key aspect. I'd also like to experiment more with the form; it's very easy to keep slipping back into a 'standard' review model, which I would very much like to avoid.

Finally, I will be starting to engage more with experiments such as the Internet Shakespeare Editions, edited by my mentor Paul Prescott. I'm not quite sure what this will mean for the future of this blog in the long term; but then, this blog can only survive for as long as I'm at Warwick anyway (assuming I don't rejoin the Graduate Association). In the short term, I'm hoping the continued engagement with the theory of academic reviewing can only benefit the blog, and keep it in line with the larger questions of the future of reviewing in general.

April 22, 2009

The Lost Interpretations of Hamlet @ The CAPITAL Centre

Writing about web page

It's a shame that my PhD doesn't (at the moment, anyway) include any performative elements; I can imagine it being uniquely exciting to have your thesis shaped by theatrical experimentation and events. Last night saw PhD researcher and CAPITAL artist-in-residence Tom Cornford's first public presentation of the Hamlet Project's rehearsal experiments, which I'd just like to make a few notes on.

The production was based on four early European Hamlet projects:  Stanislavsky/Gordon Craig’s 1912 production and Michael Chekhov’s 1924 Moscow Art Theatre Studio production, and Meyerhold and Tarkovsky’s planned versions, neither of which was produced. The hour long performance incorporated elements planned by all four productions, combining them into a single, coherent aesthetic.

Only key scenes were included, mapping the play rather than telling the entire story (Ghost and Hamlet, To be or not to be, Nunnery, Advice to players, Mousetrap, Closet, Ophelia's death, Yorick and funeral). Cast were seperated from audience by a translucent white screen, containing the action safely away - except when Hamlet forced his way under the screen to directly speak to the audience, as in soliloquy. Back projections, meanwhile, displayed images (the King and Queen in masks, for example) or tracking shots that lent depth to the stage action, most notably as a camera lingered over Ophelia's corpse in a woodland, or as the bodies of the final scene were shown in stillness, the discarded swords and goblets being individually picked out.

Key to the presentation were twinning and doubling. Two Hamlets, one male and one female, interacted throughout, whether bouncing thoughts off one another in soliloquy (rendering "To be..." particularly fascinating, as the two acted out the progression of thoughts) or joining to create a cumulative effect of speed and energy (such as the lightning fast instructions to the players, with Hamlet seemingly talking to everyone at once). "To be" additionally engaged the audience as the female Hamlet moved to a position behind and to the side of the audience seating, directly addressing the male Hamlet who stood directly in front of the screen. The Hamlets also interacted in the personas of other characters; for example, the male Hamlet doubled as the Ghost, suggesting that the Ghost is simply an aspect of Hamlet, prompting all kinds of Freudian explosions.

Doubling was used importantly elsewhere. The Freudian aspects of the play were again highlighted in The Mousetrap, which saw the female Hamlet doubling as Lucianus while Claudius played Gonzago and Gertrude his queen. This idea deserves further attention; the multiple significances of Hamlet taking on his uncle's role in the dumbshow, while the uncle becomes the father, were hugely arresting and complex, the Oedipus parallels being made visual and physical (though stopping short of showing Hamlet-Lucianus and Gertrude together - the fantasy aborted by Claudius' call for "Light!"). Among the minor characters, similar links were made. Polonius and Ophelia, both having recently died, reappeared as the Gravediggers, while Horatio became Laertes, complicating his relationship with the Hamlets.

The acting was heavily stylised in places, and I regret missing the discussion afterwards as this is the aspect I know least about in relation to the performances being quoted. However, the adoption of stylised techniques for "The Mousetrap" worked especially well in the case of Claudius and Gertrude as they became the players - the restricted movements and stock gestures employed in their acting-out of their crimes lent a sense of entrapment and crudity to what they had done, their decisions chaining them. Lucianus, meanwhile, dressed in black while speaking the prologue and performing in the dumb-show, moved through a series of pre-defined gestures that separated her eerily from the others on stage; in this player, the female Hamlet was reincarnated, and she maintained an otherness, a detachment from the rest of the characters, that showed her deliberate intent in performing and introducing the play. It was moments like this that strengthened the connection between the two Hamlets, creating a partnership that bound the plot directly in with the workings of their mind.

The sudden appearance of the Ghost provided one of the production's most enduing images, leaping suddenly up onto a raised platform and holding out an arm towards Hamlet, face obscured by a black cloak that rendered his body shapeless, blending in with the darkness of the stage. In response, the guards moved through the motions of loading and firing longbows, almost in slow motion, turning the instinctive reflexes into a choreographed and predestined ballet with the ghost; their actions were impotent, ineffectual. Hamlet's anxiety and emotion on seeing his father were conveyed through a further, bizarre set of movements as he fought to get to him, culminating in the female actor leaping to a kneeling position on Horatio's shoulders, an unnatural position which demonstrated the extremes of his emotional response.

The nunnery scene raced past in a heartrending encounter between Ophelia and Hamlet, while Polonius and Claudius could be glimpsed standing behind a second translucent screen. Ophelia took a static position at one side of the stage, weeping and pleading with Hamlet, while he paced back and forth across the width of the stage. His restricted movement was at odds with his seemingly limitless energy, his frustration and anger being channelled into his attack on Ophelia, culminating in his brutally shoving her to the floor. This sense of a captive energy finally found a release at the end of Ophelia's madness, when she ran off-stage. Another actor took over seamlessly behind the second screen, shuttle-running across the stage, until finally emerging as the furious Laertes. This transition not only served to link the change in focus between the siblings, but also allowed the wild energy to finally be released; culminating, of course, in Ophelia's offstage death, announced shortly after (here, the siblings never met). At its heart, the production was concerned with repression and constraint, chronicling the effects of release after entrapment that destroy all they come into contact with.

A relatively kindly Polonius was the victim in the closet scene, but not a victim we were encouraged to identify with; he was simply collateral damage. More powerful was Hamlet's confrontation with his mother, during which both Claudius and Old Hamlet were brought physically back on stage, standing either side of Gertrude and forcing her to confront her choices. Polonius reappeared in the Graveyard, standing behind a raised platform on which Hamlet stood, looking down into the grave. This platform provided a focal point for the final scene, including the locked grapple into which Hamlet and Laertes entered.

Finally - it was only an hour long! I have to say, I do enjoy a Hamlet of this length much more. An extremely interesting performance, with some cracking student actors. I only hope Tom can find a way to write it all up!

April 08, 2009

Othello (Northern Broadsides) @ The Belgrade Theatre

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Othello publicity art

The new Northern Broadsides production of Othello has caused something of a stir this year, with countless articles and interviews devoted to the novelty of one of Britain's most beloved comedians, Lenny Henry CBE, jumping in at the deep end with his first theatrical Shakespearean role. Broadsides are an ensemble company who rarely indulge in star actors, meaning that Henry's casting has drawn a great deal of unprecedented attention to the work of Barrie Rutter, Conrad Nelson and their team. Happily, both Henry and Broadsides have risen to the challenge and created a solid, enjoyable Othello that shows off the company's strengths.

The production’s main pleasures came from the contrast between Henry’s Othello and Nelson’s Iago. Othello was a large man, deep of voice and slow of movement. Iago, however, was wiry and fast. In their shared scenes, Othello was left doddering in the centre of the stage while Iago moved quickly around the edges, surrounding Othello and pressing in on him from all sides. Their movements mirrored their respective thought patterns; Henry’s Othello was not stupid, but took his time responding to new ideas and thoughts, while Iago skipped constantly ahead, trying to keep up with the momentum of his own schemes. Othello was by far the more powerful of the two, but he was simply outpaced by Iago and left clutching wildly at means to deal with information he had no time to process. The innate violence of the character was drawn out by his immediate and instinctive return to graphic threats.

Othello’s simplicity and gravitas combined to make him the anchoring presence in every scene he appeared in. His self-defence to the Duke against Brabantio’s complaints saw him stand stock-still centre-stage and use plain words and accent to justify himself. In Henry’s Midlands accent, the rhetoric felt natural and believable, the honesty and honour of his words coming through rather than any sense of artificial style. This less-is-more approach characterised Henry’s performance throughout, usually to great effect: the unfiltered joy with which he greeted Desdemona in Cyprus, the immediate strength with which he separated Montano and Cassio, the bewildered and increasingly angry expression on his face during the temptation scenes, all contributed to the effect of a plain man being destroyed by external forces.

Henry wasn’t faultless, by any means. His movement was often extremely stilted and uncomfortable, notably during his epileptic fit where he knelt, then deliberately threw himself to the floor, then began convulsing, all movements slightly disjointed from each other. He also had an occasional tendency to gabble words. These small negatives were easily forgotten, though, in the light of his strengths. His slowness made those few moments of physical exertion all the more effective, most impressively as he hurled a knife at Iago in anger which stuck, quivering, in a drawing board (spectacularly done, and the programme reveals a knife-throwing coach was brought in especially). Henry excelled, too, in a moving final scene that saw him retreat further into himself, still and defeated as he sat on the edge of Desdemona’s bed and stabbed himself, before crashing off the bed as he attempted to kiss his dead wife. The injustice of his end even seemed to filter through to Iago, whose vindictive laughter ceased as he stared at his master in sober discomfort.

Iago owned the production throughout, dominating the stage from the sidelines rather than from Othello’s central position. This soldier made a particularly effective show of his service to Othello, snapping out salutes and acknowledgements with military efficiency and performing his duties with a diligent yet casual attitude that suggested his enjoyment of carrying out orders. This was only a show, however, and Nelson’s Yorkshire lilt brought a sneering unpleasantness to Iago’s sexually graphic imagery and sick jokes. He despised Emilia, pointedly not taking her overcoat while collecting those of the other new arrivals in Cyprus, and never let his hatred for other characters slip too far below the surface, for example standing over Othello and smiling evilly as the latter woke from his fit. He was a skilful manipulator, and the temptation scene was a masterclass in the subtleties of sowing suspicion, catching Othello’s eye at key moments in order to emphasise those words useful to his aims.

Unfortunately, the two central performances were not matched by those of their wives. Jessica Harris began interestingly as Desdemona, a young and jubilant housewife with few airs or formalities. Her joyful disregard of decorum offended her father deeply (their relationship reminded me of Victorian new money, Northern mill owners striking rich and attempting to adjust their characters to high class society) as she took Othello’s arm and hugged him in front of the Duke. Her playfulness affected the grave Othello, bringing rare smiles to his face as he indulged her enthusiasm. However, the enthusiasm grew quickly wearing, and Harris’ delivery of lines was weak and monotonous. The second act allowed her to develop some more depth, in particular becoming extremely fearful of Othello after he threw her to the floor. Her subsequent terror at approaching him was interesting, but spoiled by her flipping too quickly between fear with Othello, carefree gossip with Emilia in the bedroom and then abject terror yet again while singing the Willow song.

Maeve Larkin's Emilia was similarly mixed. Mannered, wry and very still, she made an ideal waiting maid, and her matter-of-fact commentary provided the perfect antithesis to Desdemona’s sunny disposition. However, her speech and movement were too finely choreographed to be convincing. She continually addressed a fixed point in the middle distance, and her movement consisted of extremely precise steps and gestures in perfect synchronicity with her words, leaving her whole performance looking extremely artificial. This became a crucial weakness in the final scenes where her carefully controlled shouts and complaints were completely insufficient for the content and tone of her dire situation and overwhelming grief.

While the female characters grated, the remainder of the production was generally entertaining. The standout scene saw the evening revels turned into a drinking game of epic proportions, expertly choreographed and infectiously funny. The revellers arrived with brass and drums to sing the Cannikin song over and over again, each time passing a full tankard down the line of revellers, with he who held it at the end of the song obliged to down the whole cup. Much visual comedy was found in Cassio’s early attempts to avoid the cup by changing places in line, to no effect as the rest of the men conspired to make sure it kept returning to him. As the scene progressed, though, Cassio’s temper was allowed to slowly develop, each cup leaving him louder and more aggressive until his angry protestations of sobriety were countered by him falling offstage through a door. Extending this scene and giving Cassio time to build up to his attack on Roderigo was effective, and also allowed Iago to be seen working patiently at setting up his victims.

Costumes located the production in a broadly Edwardian period, though several outfits had additional resonances – the red berets of Iago and his fellow soldiers evoked modern military units such as the Black Watch, emphasised in Iago’s military manner, while the neckties and long skirts of the ladies are perhaps more associated with the American West, the practical outfits of working women in a man’s world. Ruari Murchison’s set, however, was Venice through and through, an enormous central pillar dividing a high stone balcony on one side from a series of tall slatted wooden doors on the other. These aside, the set was left empty apart from a series of architectural implements set up by Othello and Iago during the temptation scene, and the bed which took pride of place in the closing scenes.

As the publicity materials and broadsheet attention made abundantly clear, this was Lenny Henry’s production, and his performance stepped up to the mark, giving a straightforward and sympathetic reading of the Moor that heightened the tragedy of his story. However, a performance is nothing without the production to support it, and Broadsides didn’t fail to deliver. Despite some weaknesses in individual performances, Barrie Rutter’s direction and a wonderful pairing in the lead roles made for a no-nonsense and thoroughly effective straight telling of the play.

This review originally appeared at Shakespeare Revue.