All entries for April 2012

April 29, 2012

Radio Shakespeare: Twelfth Night (BBC Drama on 3)

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I listened last night to the BBC's new radio production of Twelfth Night, starring David Tennant, Ron Cook, Naomi Frederick and a host of other fantastic actors. I'm not going to offer a review, as I can't claim to particularly like or enjoy radio drama. It did, however, force me to ask a couple of questions of myself regarding how I experience the form.

Quite simply, I struggle to see what people get out of the form. I have always held up my hands and admitted that my interest in Shakespearean performance is in staging. The language is, of course, an important part of that, but the dialogue is contextualised by blocking, proxemics, expression, visual elements, audience response etc. While I have no objection to a purely auditory experience of listening to actors speak Shakespeare's verse, I don't personally get a great deal out of it.

Further, on the basis of this production and others I've heard, I'm concerned that radio productions of Shakespeare tend towards the most conservative possible reading of the play. The use of sound effects throughout evoked in me the impression of a 19th century theatrical production, obsessed with accuracy of set and setting - to the extent that, at the end of the gulling scene, Malvolio and Fabian triumphed in the garden; and then there was a quick break, the sound of a door slamming, and the clowns arriving back at the house to congratulate Maria. Throughout, the aim appeared to be to create the impression of a lived, naturalistic setting, yoking the play to real places rather than the fluid spaces that characterise early modern drama.

The performances were fine. I particularly enjoyed Tennant's growling Scots Malvolio and Cook's belching, slurring Sir Toby (reprising a role he's played very effectively on stage, of course). But the medium appears to me to appeal to the most ingrained, obvious readings of characters. I can understand why purists might enjoy this kind of drama - what it does do is focus attention on the text, and forces actors to work with the humour of the words rather than, in the current RSC fashion, inserting crotch-grabs and fart jokes as easy cues. Still, I long to hear a radio production that does something truly extraordinary with a play, something that innovates rather than consolidates.

April 23, 2012

Britgrad 2012

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I don't normally repost non-performance related material up here, but I'm always happy to make an exception in the case of Britgrad, the annual postgraduate Shakespeare conference at the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon, which has been a very good friend to me over the last five years. I'm now ineligible to attend myself, but if there are any graduate readers out there, do consider putting in an abstract - it's a fantastic place to meet like-minded folks and hear some fantastic papers. The line-up of plenaries is simply spectacular this year.

Message begins:


The Shakespeare Institute

The University of Birmingham

June 14-16, 2012

Call for papers

Deadline Friday 4 May 2012

We invite graduate students with interests in both Shakespearean and Renaissance studies to join us in June for the Fourteenth Annual British Graduate Shakespeare Conference.

The interdisciplinary conference provides a friendly but stimulating academic forum in which graduate students from all over­ the world can present their research and meet together in an active centre of Shakespearean research and theatre: Shakespeare’s home town of Stratford-upon-Avon. Undergraduate students in their final two years of study are also invited to attend the conference as auditors.

The conference will feature talks by Peter Holland (Notre Dame), Tiffany Stern (Oxford), Paul Menzer (Mary Baldwin), Martin Butler (Leeds), Deborah Shaw (RSC), René Weis (UCL), and Katherine Duncan-Jones (Oxford). Delegates have the opportunity to attend the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Richard III, part of the World Shakespeare Festival, at a group-booking price. Lunch will be provided each day, and delgates are invited to a dance and drinks reception one night.

We invite abstracts of approximately 200 words for papers twenty minutes in length (3,000 words or less). Delegates wishing to give papers must register by Friday 4 May 2012. We strongly encourage early registration to ensure a place on the conference programme.

Our website contains more information about the event and venue, including prices and downloadable registration forms:

Find us on Facebook: BritGrad 2012

Email us with questions at:

April 22, 2012

U–Venas no Adonisi (Venus and Adonis) (Isango Ensemble) @ Shakespeare's Globe

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The tagline for the ‘Globe to Globe’ Festival reads “37 Plays, 37 Languages”; a tagline which excludes the Isango Ensemble’s U-Venas no Adonisi, the thirty-eighth ‘play’ (a dramatised version of Shakespeare’s poem) spoken in not one but six different languages: IsiZulu, IsiXhosa, SeSotho, Setswana, Afrikaans and South African English. This launch production, then, functioned as a kind of prologue to the Festival, breaking in the primarily English-speaking audience with a story that retained a substantial proportion of Shakespeare’s text and embraced a range of musical traditions, making this both recognisably South African and unmistakably global.

The Isango Ensemble is primarily an opera company, and this take on Venus and Adonis was a palimpsest in both its spoken and musical languages, representing the cultural diversity of Cape Town. The influence of the western operatic tradition was keenly felt in the vocal work of the company’s formidable ‘diva’, Pauline Malefane (also one of the production’s two musical directors), whose extraordinary range and power immediately established the power dynamic that would drive her interactions as Venus with Mhlekazi Whawha Mosiea’s Adonis.

Innovatively, though, Malefane was only the first in a series of seven Venuses, all dressed identically except for individualised hairstyles and facial decorations. After an opening choral piece, the company wound an enormous bedsheet around Malefane, which was passed from actor to actor during the wooing of Adonis that occupied the play’s first half. In this way, Venus was kept constantly fresh, wearing down the increasingly embattled Adonis. The change in physical identity was accompanied by continual variety in musical stylings, taking in street rap, showtime (with a comically smiling troupe of chorus girls), jazz (with the male cast members donning shades and clicking fingers), tribal chanting, folk laments and rounds.

The effect was one of a melting pot of traditions, aware of the future but celebrating an African heritage. Venus and Adonis became a continental myth, the lover against the hunter. The soft melodies of Venus were countered by the raucous screaming of huntsmen, at which the usually sullen Adonis came to life, brandishing a spear and grinning wickedly in anticipation of the hunt. At these moments, the visual traditions of African carnival came to the fore. Venus entered on a horse made up of the bodies of actors, with a horse’s head on a pole held above. This horse was distracted first by Venus herself, pulling hard on his reins and scattering actors’ bodies; and later by the mare, another puppet horse brandished by Venus’s counterparts. Simphiwe Mayeki, as the actor brandishing the horse’s head, comically snorted and neighed in disdain of his master’s complaints, before prancing offstage. Luvo Rasemeni’s Boar was a more hideous presence: covered in blood and screaming, he ran about the stage, snarling and stabbing at huntsmen, enacting a mythical version of the unkillable foe.

The tone of the first half was largely comic, a mood set by the hysterical appearance of a grinning Cupid in fatsuit and "Cupid" blazoned across his chest, who brattishly embraced his mother and accidentally pricked her with one of his arrows. Aside from the Boar’s intrusions, the comic mood continued throughout the first half as the succession of Venuses threw themselves at the petulant and helpless Adonis, wrapping their sheet around him in various modes of entrapment and coercion. Adonis was largely passive, unable to resist and reduced to silence. In one especially beautiful moment, as Venus feigned death, he and she became wrapped in the tendrils of the sheet, allowing him to gently lower her to the ground then raise her for a kiss, at which she awoke and winked deliciously at the audience. After promising her a kiss, the chorus of Venuses entrapped him in a sheet, forcing him into an almost intimidatingly oppressive intimacy with the goddess.

The second half, focusing on Venus waiting for and then lamenting Adonis, was much darker, owing largely to the introduction of Katlego Mmusi’s Death. Made up from head to foot as a grinning skeleton, with long blood red tongue slithering out, Death paced the stage, clashing together two sickles to ‘kill’ Adonis’s wounded dogs. The second half became a literal dance between Love and Death; played by Malefane for the entire second half, Venus was once more a powerful but frustrated presence, throwing the invulnerable skeleton around the stage but unable to do anything more as he skulked in the shadows. Finally, the male chorus gathered, all concealed under blankets. Venus ran around revealing the men until she arrived at Adonis; and on looking into his face, Death clashed his sickles one final time.

U-Venas no Adonisi was the perfect opening to the Festival, representative of its South African visitors while speaking to a broad and accessible multicultural audience. In this sense it offered a modern idea of Africa, globally aware but celebratory of its diverse heritages. Shakespeare’s poem became a tribal story, a myth of essential human practices, and a full standing ovation welcomed this newly timeless tale back to London.

This is a slightly extended version of a review originally written for the World Shakespeare Festival Project "Year of Shakespeare".

April 12, 2012

The Alchemist (Let Them Call it Mischief) @ The White Bear, London

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As previously noted, despite the fact I teach the specialist Jonson module at Nottingham, I've never yet seen any of his plays in performance. Happily, the ongoing mission of London's White Bear Theatre pub to promote the wider early modern canon couldn't avoid Jonson for too long, and last night was the turn of new company Let Them Call It Mischief to assay The Alchemist in a short, snappy production that gave the play room to breathe while adding a great deal of energy and invention to the presentation.

The single location of The Alchemist was realised as a huge furniture unit, with two narrow doors amid an array of drawers and cabinets, which opened at various points to reveal collections of potions, star charts, windows to the outside and, in the final act, the hat-wearing hands that represented Lovewit's gossiping neighbours. The varied use of this single piece of set allowed the location a certain fluidity, while maintaining a fixed sense of place. This was made more apparent with the use of a portable door, low enough to force everyone who passed through it to duck, which Face spent the play moving in and out of a storage space and repositioning in order to welcome the several visitors to his house. This device was particularly effective in establishing Face's control over the environment of the house, he literally creating the access routes in and out of the house.

Danny Wainwright not only directed, but also took on the role of Face at apparently short notice - an appropriate role for the show's director, in terms of the character's manouvering of the rest of the company. Wainwright slipped expertly between a number of disguises and personas, from the Cockney rogue that appeared to be his "real" self to the clipped RP of Jeremy the Butler and his gruff, military air (behind a ludicrously bushy fake moustache) as "Captain" Face. Face's default position was at the side of the stage, laughing knowingly at the follies of the successive suitors to the alchemist. In this sense, he provided the grounding for the play's tricks, the earthy ballast to the increasingly hysterical antics of Subtle and the finely drawn coterie of gulls.

This production was about folly, as established right from the start in the silent sight of the elderly and somewhat foppish Lovewit (Robert Rowe) leaving his house for what appeared to be a constitutional rather than a flight from plague. While the setting was nominally Victorian, the production didn't depend on period specificity, rather drawing on the period for a range of character types that usefully and broadly signposted the qualities (or lack thereof) of the various suitors to Subtle. Thus Dapper (Richard Taylor-Neil) was a moustachioed and affected Victorian gent; Surly (James McGregor) a suited and cackling villain; Drugger (Phil Featherstone) a simple Northern shopkeeper and Sir Epicure Mammon (Andrew Venning) a soldier complete with hobby horse.

The production began calmly enough, muting the initial opening outburst in order to draw the distinction between Wainwright's stolid and sure Face and Ed Cartwright's nervier Subtle. The two men showed clear antagonism to one another, but in a cool, sniping way rather than outright temper. Stephanie Hampton's Dol, meanwhile, wore a constant smile and flirtatious manner, attempting to charm the two men into accord - at least, until she finally lost her patience with Subtle and ended up pinning him to the floor and beating him. Dol, decked out in pink bloomers and beauty spots, fitted oddly within this production; with the part suffering from cuts, and a decision to play her consistently flirtatious rather than play up the stronger aspects of her role within the partnership, she seemed more subordinate to the other characters than one might expect.

Once the main play began, however, Face and Subtle relaxed into an easy dialogue that saw them manage the stage smoothly, trade whispered barbs and improvise with style. Cartwright was excellent when in full alchemical flow, reeling off his technical terms with only a few slips and managing the hidden compartments of the set to reveal fortunes, potions and assorted props. The two men also succeeded in creating clearly differentiated performances according to the gull in question. Mammon, for example, was treated to a histrionic performance by Subtle following the explosion in the lab, playing on his exaggerated ecstasy to heighten the effect of the disaster.

Venning's Mammon was the production's highlight. Cantering in and out on his hobby horse (which was also passed among the audience, thrust into the rafters when searching for the tricksters and rode sidesaddle with trepidation by Dol) and announced by a brass fanfare, Venning channelled Lord Flashheart in an energetic and luxurious performance that enslaved the character to his own passions, whether coming close to orgasm as Face described Dol's charms or bouncing around the stage as he imagined his new empire. He also raised the game of everyone around him, particularly after 'triggering' Dol's religious babble, when his prolonged and literally staggering kisses to silence her reduced company and audience to helpless laughter; or in inspiring Surly to increasingly melodramatic evil laughter as he plotted to foil the alchemist.

Everyone had their moment to shine. Drugger, in a bizarre moment, illustrated his previous experience as a Fool with a reenactment of being chased by a dragon, a scene which felt oddly tacked on, but his general slowness throughout became a running joke that worked far better. Alyssa Noble's Dame Pliant, all cleavage and bouncy hair, left the men open-mouthed; but Noble brought an interestingly sexual dimension to the character as she leaped between Face and Subtle and punched her brother when he attempted to restrain her.  The choice to play Tribulation and Ananias as Catholic nuns jarred with the dialogue in which Ananias, of course, complains about Popish elements; but allowed for some interesting moments, particularly as Holly Blair's Tribulation decided to flirt to win Subtle over, the nun pushing her chest up against the alchemist and breathing in his ear. And McGregor's excellent Subtle came into his own in the second half too, dressed in a spectacular Spanish gallant costume and reeling off fluent Spanish that added weight to his first sight of Dame Pliant, when the Spanish lothario appeared to entirely take over his character. His bolstered codpiece also attracted attention from the furious Ananias (Claire Cartwright) who decried its immorality in a voice of outrage.

The most significant complaint about the production is that the cutting of the final act was extremely badly handled. While plenty of time was given to Lovewit's return and his confident acceptance of the situation granted him by a subdued Face, several plot ends were left hanging. Bizarrely, despite going to the effort of retaining Subtle and even hiding him in the closet, the production never completed his story, omitting the Fairy Queen episode entirely. More importantly, the final encounter with Subtle and Dol was removed, meaning that the characters were denied their ending and instead just disappeared after having been the primary movers of the first four acts. This was a huge disappointment, leaving the play feeling unfinished.

Despite this, The Alchemist thrived in the hands of this young company, rendering the action clear and entirely amusing. It also confirmed my suspicion that sympathy inevitably lies with Face - despite Surly's clear-sightedness (though in this production, his folly was confirmed by ludicrous tears following his loss of Dame Pliant), Subtle's cleverness and Dol's festiness, it's the steady and practical Face that controls everything. Fully entertaining, and I'll look forward to seeing what the company offers next.

April 07, 2012

A King and No King (Willing Suspension) @ Boston University Student Theatre

The annual Shakespeare Association of America conference is in Boston this year, a city I've never been to but which is thoroughly stunning, and a great backdrop to some very stimulating papers. Being in Boston also gave me the opportunity to see in person the Boston University students of Willing Suspension, a young theatre company devoted to the performance of non-Shakespearean drama. Several of their past productions are available on Youtube, which allowed me to make their Bartholomew Fair available to my students this year. Their current production is Beaumont and Fletcher's A King and No King, one of the finest of the King's Men's Jacobean tragicomedies and almost never performed, and so provided a welcome break from conferencing.

Stripped down and cut back, Emily Gruber and Matthew Stokes's production treated the tragicomedy as out-and-out comedy, bordering at times on camp - and to fine effect. The bare studio stage eschewed a sense of fixed place in favour of playing out continually to the audience, presenting a series of broadly drawn and self-consciously performative characters. While this approach muted any sense of genuine threat, it offered an amusing indictment of indulgent behaviour that held up characters for ridicule. This was, perhaps, clearest in the two central performances: Steve Marois as Arbaces and Vincent Lai as Bessus. A King and No King recycles several characters and situations from the King's Men's repertory, and in Marois and Loi's performances it was possible to see what would happen if Leontes and Parolles were written into the same play. Performed with constant appeal to the audience and a deliberate awareness of the sudden mood/tonal shifts that characterise both men, the play worked as parody of splenetic and humour-driven behaviours.

Arbaces was rivetting as a character. Entirely self-indulgent, vain (at one point checking his reflection in a knife) and reckless, his kingship was unstable from the start. Veering from over-friendly camaraderie to surprising violence in the blink of an eye, everyone else on stage was rendered silent and immobile in a bid to avoid antagonising him further. While this was amusing (particularly as his men attempted to shuffle sideways offstage without him noticing), the accusations of tyranny were also entirely apt. His patronising treatment of the captured Tigranes (Chris Fisher) was particularly offensive, he even patting his rival on the head at one point. Yet more than all this was the pleasure he took in his own authority, to the grief of those around him. In the play's more moving moments, Kelley Annesley's excellent Mardonia - initially a joker - became a voice of reason and passionate appeal against his excesses, finally bursting into frustrated complaints when dismissed as no longer necessary to Arbaces' plans.

Lai's Bessus, in the comic subplot, stressed the same aspects in his character, making a strong case for the thematic and stylistic unity of the play. Similarly reactionary in his moods and actions, Lai offered an entertainingly physical performance that saw him act out his retreats and attacks, with the occasional self-deprecating admission of his own cowardice to the audience. His interview with one messenger, in which he admitted that he had received over two hundred challenges, was extremely well played, building up to a cry of hysteria and a small shower of paper challenges as he realised that his supposed valour had finally made him a target for honour duels. The more serious implications of the character came out, however, as he replaced Mardonia in Arbaces' affections. On initially hearing of Arbaces' intentions to woo his own sister, Bessus paused, seeming as if he was going to make the same moral objections, before then offering a crude thrusting motion, slapping Arbaces on the back and agreeing to do the deed. The subsequent argument between the two brought out seemed to be the play's core central problem, that of the flexibility of morality in the pursuit of immediate satisfaction, and the amorality of Bessus contrasted neatly with Arbaces' soul-searching.

The choice to re-gender several of the characters, presumably occasioned by a surpus of female actors, was interesting - rather than simply have female actors play the roles as male, several of the soldiers became female. This was somewhat problematic in terms of the honour/duelling system, and moreover had the frustratingly simplistic effect of creating a sustained division between men as fools (Arbaces, Bessus, the Gentleman of the Sword) and women as voices of wisdom and reason (Mardonia, Bacuria). As a commentary on masculinist posturing, however, it offered an interesting visual distinction, and allowed for some simple comedy of the sexes in the subplot. While Mardonia's sex made little difference, playing Bacuria as a woman offered some interesting textual moments, such as her order for Bessus to "unbuckle", read by him as having sexual implication and further justifying his subsequent kicking. It allowed, too, for a slightly disquieting moment as Bessus and the two Gentlemen arrived to intimidate Bacuria, the two mocking servants suddenly switching their scorn to the woman in an attempt to subdue; an attempt comically subverted with a gleeful beating sequence as Bacuria single-handedly reduced the men to screaming messes on the floor, assisted with glee by Claudia Morera as their boy, who smiled wickedly at the audience as he wielded an enormous stick to take revenge on his unthinking masters.

More interesting in terms of the gender switches was Kelsey Simonson as Ligonia, the mother (here) of the runaway Spaconia (Fabiana Cabral). While, again, the choice of an elegantly dressed woman as the ambassador between the two kingdoms fitted oddly against the 19th century military aesthetic, it allowed for a shift in the tone of her interactions with her daughter. The quickness with which she branded her daughter "whore" and refused to listen seemed to come from a place of personal shame, and Spaconia's response evoked the teenage daughter reacting against a mother who she is attempting to distance herself from (I was reminded of The Sopranos). The sight of Tigranes attempting to pacify his new mother-in-law while supporting his wife was interesting also in this context, particularly given the quietness of Fisher's performance. Tigranes was a minor presence in this particular production, almost inaudible from my seat, which was a little disappointing, but at least served to effectively contrast his self-discipline with Arbaces' loud and reckless behaviour.

In the supporting roles, Allistair Johnson and Caitlin O'Halloran offered gravitas as Gobrius and Lady Gobrius, and Mary Parker was a severe and rock-solid presence as Arane. Arana remained the most difficult character to reconcile within the play, the murderous mother whose villainy turns out to have a root cause and who somehow remains on friendly terms with Gobrius; but Parker wisely chose to play her aloof and untouched, never giving away emotion. Jon Deschere and Matt Stokes were hysterical as the two Gentlemen of the Sword, the brothers who veered from mocking Bessus to squaring up to each other to hobbling off together after their beating by Bacuria. Cabral did good work as Spaconia, too, her gentleness and commitment bringing life to the quiet subplot of Tigranes and contrasting with Marta Armengol-Royo's more mannered and extreme Panthea.

The main plot - the incestuous love between Arbaces and Panthea - was less successful, perhaps because the highly comic tone of the rest of the play left little space for a serious treatment, and lines played with apparently serious intent were greeted with audience laughter. Armengol-Royo's princess was a very modern girl, in love with her own melodramatic responses (particularly in her amusing early interaction with Bessus, where she screamed for news much as Juliet pesters the Nurse) and constantly toying with her hands and handkerchiefs. With both Arbaces and Panthea ramping up the sentiment to the point of parody (hands on heads, wide eyes, sudden rushed kisses), it was difficult to take their plight seriously. What did come across clearly was an appeal to decorum, with Panthea shocked at the suggestion of sin as she clung breathlessly to her own purity.

The lack of serious stakes, combined with a clipped and rather sudden ending, left the final revelation scene more of a cursory wrapping up than a moment of magic, despite the attempts to create wonder by having Arbaces kneel and listen in awe. What came across more strongly - and fittingly, for this production - was the chance for a final whirl of extreme comic activity by Arbaces. Running up and down the dais to the high throne (criminally underused, but effective here) and practically skipping with joy, he took final delight in slowly revealing the cause of his own excitement, playfully reintroducing himself to the stunned Panthea and embracing all heartily. While this left the play feeling rather light, it perhaps hinted towards a sense that this is a play in which nothing really changes. Arbaces remained as inconstant and emotionally led as ever, and once more the supporting cast were reduced to still and silent watchers on, albeit this time with smiles rather than with fear. A fine and very funny revival of an excellent play.

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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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