All entries for May 2010

May 18, 2010

Antony and Cleopatra (RSC) @ The Courtyard Theatre

Writing about web page http://www.rsc.org.uk/whats-on/antony-and-cleopatra/

Michael Boyd's Antony and Cleopatra follows interestingly from Lucy Bailey's Julius Caesar, the resident ensemble's last foray into the Roman histories. While the retention of Darrell D'Silva as Mark Antony may have initially suggested a continuity between the two productions, Boyd's Antony was in many ways the polar opposite of Bailey's prequel. Defiantly proud of its bare thrust stage, dominated by Tom Piper's enormous steel, cylindrical tower (think the Histories' iron gateway on steroids), the production relied on little more than Wolfgang Gobbel's lighting states for indications of setting. Instead, this was a production that prized its performances, and featured the first really standout ensemble acting of the current company.

In choosing to make this a play about characters, Boyd sensitively conflated many of the play's minor figures, creating characters with longer through lines that an audience could watch develop and invest in. This was most powerful in the case of Katy Stephens's Eros. Played as a young boy, Eros began the play in Cleopatra's court laughing and dancing, apparently carefree. The devotion which he bore to Antony was that of son to father: always the first to cheer, never seen with anything less than a determined enthusiasm, even as Antony's fortunes turned. The change in the character, then, as Antony demanded death of him, was heartbreaking. Forced to confront the reality of the oaths he had earlier naively sworn, Eros shook as he drew his knife, barely comprehending what he was doing. With Antony's head turned, Eros plunged the knife into his own stomach, falling to his knees and shuddering violently in his master's arms as Antony caught him. With the audience already invested in the character, his body's presence became as significant to us as it was to Antony, speaking simultaneously of the bravery and waste of war.

Similarly intelligent conflations were made throughout, most notably by James Gale's Maecenas taking on Dolabella's role. Maecenas was here a suited politican who took on an ambassadorial role as Caesar's right hand (which in turn echoed the importance placed on the meeting by Caesar, who sent his best man rather than a nonentity). In this capacity, he stood in direct contrast to Phillip Edgerley's cold, bespectacled Proculeius. Luring Cleopatra into a false sense of security with his low voice and nonthreatening demeanour, he invited trust before hidden soldiers fired shots, killing both Mardian and Diomedes (here, conflated with the Messenger) instantly. Proculeius then tidied up his briefcase and notes as the women were taken hostage, his work completed. It was left to Maecenas, whispering and sneaking quickly out of a door, to give Cleopatra the information she needed.

This moment of abrupt violence, taking place before Cleopatra's throne, was a violation of a space that was set up throughout as the play's physical and emotional heart. The relationship between Kathryn Hunter's Cleopatra and her maidservants (Hannah Young as Charmian, Samantha Young as Iras) was warm, complex, funny and, above all else, mutually loyal. One running joke saw Cleopatra emerge in a different elegant outfit every time she arrived on stage, while Charmian and Iras followed in matching co-ordinated outfits, perpetuating and extending the image Cleopatra created for herself. While the play was loosely modern-dress, the womens' outfits ranged from sharp white suits and shades to exotic dresses with flowery headdresses. The closeness between the women determined the character of the court, a jovial but tightly-knit network of in-jokes, knowing looks and favouritism that served both to ingratiate the favoured and exclude unwelcome outsiders.

In front of her woman, and to a greater extent in front of visitors, Hunter's Cleopatra was a continual performer. Whether sinking to her knees in a "swoon", dancing for her lover or enacting various melodramatic poses of despair, Hunter's performance was physical and utterly compelling, demanding the full attention of both onstage and offstage audiences. This entirely unique Cleopatra may have been tiny, but Hunter made herself the focus of her every appearance on stage, whether "performing" contrition or queenliness. She fulfilled the difficult trick of being self-composed at all times, yet projecting herself as unpredictable to her subordinates. In a wonderfully performed comic segment, faced with Paul Hamilton's messenger, she began by slapping the hapless man mercilessly before drawing a knife, at which he ran offstage. Promising to be composed, she called for her throne and sat to receive the cowering man as he returned. When he delivered the same news - that Antony was married - she pulled a revolver from under her throne and fired shots after him as he ran, before causing her retinue to dive for cover as she swung the pistol round. With the Clown omitted, Hamilton became the production's main comic relief, rendering his sudden, brutal execution particularly cruel.

D'Silva's Antony, meanwhile, was a grizzled soldier, as comfortable in fatigues as in the white dinner jacket in which we first saw him, lolling in a spotlight with Cleopatra. This Antony was notable primarily for his emotional range. Capable of great tenderness (as with Octavia) and restraint (in a civilised but remarkably tense Triumvirate meeting), his extremes of emotion were conversely the only way he was able to wrench attention away from his lover in the Egyptian scenes. Following the retreat of Cleopatra's ships, he collapsed, sobbing, against the metal tower at the back of the stage. With Cleopatra kneeling downstage, the defeated soldier banged his head in frustration against the wall, directing his distress at Cleopatra while opening his arms to her approach. Taking the queen into his embrace, the two wept together in their prone position.

This position was echoed in their closing moments together, as Antony was hoisted up to a platform protruding from an opening at the top of the tower. Earlier, next to the dead Eros, Antony's sprawling figure was laughably pathetic, a mockery of the devoted loyalty that the boy had shown to him as he rolled and moaned "Not dead?" Raised up and pulled into Cleopatra's arms, the body was rendered noble. The image was clear: as a dying soldier, he was wanting. As a dying lover, he was complete. The bittersweet laughs that followed Cleopatra's refusal to let him speak were reminders of their relationship; their final moments together fittingly recapturing the dynamic of their peak.

While Antony's personal identity may have ultimately been subsumed into his shared one with Cleopatra, a sense of this decline was created through glimpses of his earlier power. The loyalty of his men, particularly Eros and Brian Doherty's casual Enobarbus (sample moment: during the Triumvirate's council, Enobarbus pushed his license to speak too far, chatting casually from his back seat and eventually being violently shouted at by Antony), cast him as a leader followed out of love rather than duty, and this was further emphasised by omitting Dercetus and giving his lines to Adam Burton's Scarus: here, the betrayal of the soldier so honoured by Antony in earlier scenes was especially distasteful.

In his negotiations with Clarence Smith's Pompey, we saw the charisma that enabled this man to be a world leader. Antony and Pompey's prior agreement was stressed, the two immediately adopting a relationship of embraces and quiet chats aside, in contrast to the more formal antagonism of Lepidus and Caesar, earlier made clear by Pompey entering and pointing a revolver at Caesar's head as the latter left the stage. Smith's performance, flanked by two dishevelled pirates, was dangerously amiable, an unpredictable power, that needed to be gently and amicably brought to surrender by Antony's quiet words rather than intimidated by Caesar's cold force. The dangers of Pompey were further emphasised by Phillip Edgerley's strong Menas who, in a lovely scene during the barge party, whispered to Pompey in the middle of the crowd while the lights dimmed and the revellers slowed to bare suggestions of movement. Moving between the Triumvirate, with particular attention to Caesar, the insidious danger of the pirates was made clear, and Menas' angry departure from the stage only heightened the unpredictability of these new allies.

This was one of only a few overtly theatrical effects during the production. Another saw the tower open up during the departure of Bacchus, smoke and light spilling out and inviting the guard soldiers in, to their surprise and confusion. The battles were realised as choreographed dances: the initial sea battle saw a huge blue drape lowered over the stage and held aloft by Charmian and Iras. The two, with Cleopatra, then brought out enormous paper ships, which bobbed over the men as they began to brawl on the stage. Suddenly, the three turned away and marched offstage with their ships, and both armies stopped and stared in amazement at the flight of the ships. The long drape was later evoked in Cleopatra's final dressing, for which she held out her arms and was clad in metres of cloth that trailed across the stage, the tiny queen continuing to fill the stage even in her final moments.

Against the excesses and majesty of Antony and Cleopatra, finally, was positioned John Mackay's Octavius. Only ever betraying real emotion when confronted with his sister, this was a cold and stunted man. During the celebrations on Pompey's barge, Mackay sat downstage, stiff and uncomfortable in unbuttoned shirt while the remainder of the soldiers lounged on the floor. As the soldiers chanted at him to drink, he eventually snapped and roared his anger at the rest of them, breaking up the party; just as he would later break with Sandy Neilson's amiable Lepidus, displayed manacled on an overhead platform even as his fate was described. Octavius surrounded himself with beurocrats, including Maecenas and Geoffrey Freshwater's Agrippa, and was concerned more than anything else with self-presentation. In his most powerful moment, the stage cleared at the close of the penultimate scene. Left alone in a chair centrestage, Octavius turned to the audience and addressed us: "You shall see/ How hardly I was drawn into this war, / How calm and gentle I proceeded still." This special pleading, this attempt to condition our responses before the action had even been taken, was symptomatic of Octavius, and the blackout that followed this scene (the only one of the production) underlined the importance of this moment. While Antony and Cleopatra may have owned the hearts of their followers, Octavius showed himself to be a master of mass manipulation; and even though we could see through his facade, we could do nothing to stop him. A "new politics", indeed.


May 05, 2010

Twelfth Night (National Theatre Primary Classics) @ Warwick Arts Centre

Writing about web page http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/39017/primary-classics/primary-classics.html

The Primary Classics series is an important part of the National Theatre's youth work. You can argue till you're blue in the face about the politics of canon, the centrality of Shakespeare as a "necessary" component of primary education, and whether there aren't a great many more worthwhile theatrical projects that kids should be taken to, but those are bigger questions. Shakespeare's undoubtedly going to stay central to the curriculum under the next government, and the National are selling in line with current priorities.

And yet, I can't ignore the question of what a Shakespeare production educates children in. Two things in Carl Heap's abridged version jumped out at me, things which I was disappointed and saddened to see so prominently in a production for schoolchildren.

* Nicholas Clayton's Sir Toby - the funniest and therefore the most influential character in the production - indulging in casual sexual harrassment of Niamh McCann's Maria (slapping her backside, forcibly kissing her), and her giggling in delight at this. The best adult productions I've seen of Twelfth Night have thrown up serious questions about this relationship; to condone it as funny and acceptable before kids, I found abhorrent.

* A studious avoidance of sexual ambiguity, which is far more understandable but begs the question of why one would put on a Twelfth Night for kids? This was rendered particularly conservative in the minor editing of Samantha Pearl's Viola's line "A little thing would make me tell them how much I lack of a man" to "A little thing would make me tell them how much I lack a man." With the omission of a single word, we moved from the complex, gender-fluid humour of a boy/girl shying away from manhood, to the plaint of a helpless girl needing a big strong man to come and rescue her (as, of course, Ross Devlin's Antonio subsequently did). It was no longer her identity at stake, but her conventional social position.

These may seem ungenerous complaints, but they're key to my questioning of what "value" subsists in Shakespeare done in this way? Heap's editing boiled the production down to a breakneck seventy minutes, rattling through scenes at a pace which I could follow, knowing the play inside out, but to my mind seemed to rather obscure the action. This wasn't helped by the fact that a seven-strong cast performed practically every role from the play, including such eminently cuttable characters as Fabian, Valentine and the Priest: meaning that actors often had to disappear offstage midscene to change (example: Asif Khan's Sebastian unlinked arms with Olivia during the final scene to reappear moments later as Malvolio, then sneaked back on after yelling Malvolio's closing line from offstage).

The insistence on keeping all the characters and at least a sketch of every scene extended into the attempt to retain as much Shakespearean dialogue as possible. Excellent jokes ("If this were played now upon a stage") fell flat on an audience of schoolchildren who weren't given the tools or articulation in order to understand and appreciate that jokes were being told. However, the kids went wild for the copious physical comedy: Edward Evans's Sir Andrew, in particular, had the audience screaming with laughter as he mugged and posed in a variety of ridiculous positions.

Why incorporate so much of the Shakespearean text if it's the physical comedy that's needed to occasion a response? Why can an adaptation for children compromise on everything except the words? Is the best response really to put on a funny show for the kids and hope that some of the Shakespearean text seeps through; or, might it not be better to create a new text that allows children to engage with ears as well as eyes?

These reservations aside, this was a well-performed and often very funny romp through Twelfth Night. Set on a small raised platform with a curtain hanging behind, and locations posts at either side of the stage for Orsino's and Olivia's households, the production prioritised speed and accessibility. As already mentioned, Sir Toby and Sir Andrew were dominant, with their knockabout comedy (particularly in the drinking and duel scenes) consistently amusing. Clayton's Toby had something of the retired colonel about him: roaring from behind his whiskered mask and towering over the rest of the cast, he was a formidable presence, presenting a surprising amount of genuine danger to both Malvolio, leering down on him from a chair as he snarled "Art any more than a steward?", and to Sebastian, their duel continuing on even terms until broken up by Olivia. Evans, meanwhile, concentrated on Andrew's cowardice: in the final scene, a long Scooby-Doo-esque double-take sequence saw him stopping his limbs from shaking at the sight of Sebastian one by one, before finally screaming and running offstage.

McCann gave a performance full of gusto as Maria, with knowing winks and sighs to the audience and a willingness to get stuck in with the physical humour. The only member of Olivia's household who didn't wear a commedia dell'arte mask, she thus became something of an audience surrogate, providing the clearest transitions between the main plot and the comedic chaos of Toby and Andrew. Devlin's Feste, by contrast, was subordinated to near-pointlessness; while his songs were enjoyable, the character was reduced to little more than a strolling musician, with his playing for Orsino and his consolation of Malvolio in prison played sincerely. Feste did, however, take Fabian's place during the garden scene, which made Fabian's appearance in time for Andrew and Viola's duel even more confusing.

Clayton doubled as Orsino in a performance inspired by Blackadder's Prince Regent. In fits of Byronic excess, he laid back with head on hand in Cesario's lap, in paroxysms of emotional despair. In moments such as this, the production achieved its best marriages of interpretation with accessibility, positioning Orsino as a clearly self-indulgent and foolish lord, while also establishing his power. Pearl's Viola worked well in tandem with him, dressed in breeches and cap and forever uncomfortable at the male-bonding advances made by him, as well as the more sexual ones of Olivia. Olivia herself was similarly effective, playing up the petulant aspects of the character and often having her run offstage in fits of sobs as she failed to get from Cesario (here pronounced interestingly as Chezario) the promises she desired. Her happiness with Sebastian was, understandably, rendered suitably platonic as the two skipped offstage together holding hands.

Asif Khan did a strong job with Malvolio, clothed in black robes and severe mask. This steward was a priggish bore, and a coward to boot - withdrawing before Toby's threats, he instead slammed his cane into Feste's feet and left the poor clown hobbling. Skipping and dancing in the garden after reading "Olivia's" letter, he demonstrated an amusing confidence in his own attractiveness that kept the humour on the child-friendly side of sexual implication. The severe abbreviation of the prison scene, however (limited to just Malvolio's request for pen and paper from Feste) left this subplot rather cut short, however. More disturbing was the climax. Jessie Burton's Olivia found the trick played on Malvolio hysterically funny, and the entire cast laughed long and cruelly at his misfortune. There was no interrogation of the rights or wrongs of the actions; no set up of Malvolio's "crimes" substantial enough to justify his punishment, and no attempt at redemption for any of the characters. Instead, Malvolio's offstage shout of "I'll be revenged..." cut across the echo of bullying laughter, a rather hollow note for any production to close on, but surely an inappropriate one for a children's production. I agree that one can't expect a full level of emotional and psychological deconstruction in a school production; but surely issues such as bullying, hitting back and pleasure in others' misfortunes are ones that can - and should - be challenged with children, not held up for enjoyment?

While, of course, I won't be privy to any post-show classroom discussions, my impression of the audience's response was that the children enjoyed the obviously funny moments, but their lack of response during the verbal joking or the exposition suggested strongly to me that they didn't follow what was going on. For my part, my reservations about the kinds of value exposed but not challenged by the production left me wondering what the purpose of this production was. If it was to make its audience laugh, through innocent or cruel means, then I'd argue it worked; but I'm not sure how much of a success that makes it. If Shakespeare for children is going to continue to mean something, other than the assumed timeless value of being exposed to Shakespeare's words, then I think productions need to do a lot more. The kids can handle it.


May 02, 2010

Macbeth @ Shakespeare's Globe

Writing about web page http://www.shakespeares-globe.org/theatre/annualtheatreseason/macbeth/

Lucy Bailey's recent outings at Shakespeare's Globe have been some of the biggest highlights of the theatre's annual season. Last year's Timon of Athens, in particular, made amazing, innovatory use of the space to create a theatrical experience that was total and participatory, creating something theatrically effective over any sense of historical authenticity. This exploration of the Globe's boundaries continued with Macbeth. A black canopy over half of the pit offered groundlings the chance to watch the action with their heads poking up through holes, rooting them to a spot and bringing them, quite literally, into the world of the play; for this black canopy was the pit of hell, seething and billowing on the edge of the stage.

Audience members shrieked as actors sprinted about under the canopy, brushing against legs and, in one case, apparently picking someone's pocket. The feeling of being rooted to the spot further induced panic as Frank Scantori's bloated, disgusting Porter threatened to throw his bucket of piss over our heads. Finally, and most dramatically, naked male bodies were thrust up through gaps in the canopy, bloodied and screaming in torment. This black sea of the underworld was the place were souls would suffer for eternity, and the scarily impressive make-up of gouges and wounds made this a truly effective experience for those of us standing among them.

The custodians of this world were the three Sisters, here comically dressed in the tattered uniforms of Globe stewards, metatheatrically linking the physical environment of our world with the metaphorical aesthetic of the play. Haggard and capped, and nominally led by the diminutive Karen Anderson, the Three acted to move tortured souls between the two worlds, whether bundling bodies through trapdoors or holding up the screaming spirits that appeared to Macbeth. Constantly in motion, and repeatedly appearing throughout the play, including as Macbeth's soldiers in the final act, they closed in on Macbeth throughout, governing the play's key actions and awaiting their prey.

The staging gimmick, unfortunately, was so dominant that it rather unbalanced the rest of the play, as well as the audience's attention. School groups were largely more interested in creating funny shapes under the canopy, and it induced something of an hysterical state in a lot of people that detracted attention from the play itself. This was made even more difficult by an entirely unnecessary pair of circular motorised rails hanging from the stage roof, from which were hung a black curtain and a series of burning cauldrons. The noise of this rail, coupled with the usual sound problems of the Globe (clearly, helicoptors are making up for lost time after the impact of the volcanic ash cloud) and the state of an audience distracted by the innovative staging, meant that for long parts of the action I could barely make out the words actors were saying - and I was standing at the very front of the pit.

When the play managed to break through, it was largely very decent, although individual performances were of mixed quality. Happily, both Elliot Cowan and Laura Rogers in the leads were extremely strong. Cowan's Macbeth was a man of powerful build and ambition, with a confident swagger that belied fears of the prophecies. When he showed moments of weakness, then, they carried all the more impact: asked by Lady Macbeth for the daggers, he kicked them back with his heel, unable to bring himself to even look at them. His physical ability manifested itself sexually (to the whooping delight of the school groups) in his return to Lady Macbeth. He approached her from behind a transparent black curtain as she mused, reaching out and enveloping her in the curtain, kissing her through it in a fantastic image that saw the man literally envelop the woman in darkness, violence and lust all in a freeze-framed kiss. As they stripped off and began (almost) copulating on the floor, one saw a healthy and driven relationship that empowered both of them, the sex in itself driving their ambition. As Macbeth progressed to power, though, this sexual aggression took on a more disturbing form, including a near-rape of her even as he excluded her from his plans to murder Banquo and Macduff. Finally alone and rearmed in his final scenes, he exuded a confidence in his own strength that is rarely seen in productions more concerned with showing his mental degradation; beckoning to Young Siward, he despatched his young foe with a casual disregard.

Rogers, meanwhile, was a fascinatingly conflicted Lady Macbeth. This was the most scared Lady Macbeth I've ever seen, with her nervousness and awkwardness only absent when in sexual contact with her husband. Where she would normally be dominant in the immediate aftermath of the murder, here she was as terrified of the bloody daggers as Macbeth, eventually steeling herself to take them back and walking fitfully towards Duncan's chamber. Her increasing terror of Macbeth saw this fragile woman slowly breaking apart even as he rebuffed her, and the events of the banquet scene left her in a shaking mess. The sleepwalking scene realised this breakdown, she stumbling around the stage with a wax candle and scrubbing at the floor in a panic before giving a horrific scream. It was an interestingly human take on Lady M., showing a woman whose ambition far exceeded her reach and paid the price for pushing herself too far.

Keith Dunphy was a remarkably weak Macduff, apparently bored in the role and keen to get his scenes over with as soon as possible. His voice was reedy throughout, and he played Macduff as keenly naive in the England scene, beaming in pleasure over Malcolm's trick. This was coupled with one of the poorest stage fights I've ever seen in his final tussle with Macbeth, a horribly anticlimactic end to the main action of the play. While much of this was related to Dunphy's performance, it also felt like a weakness I've complained about before of Rupert Goold's Shakespeare productions: that beneath the gimmicky, production design and high concept, Bailey struggles to direct simple dialogue scenes to match the flair elsewhere. The strengths of this production were visual and conceptual, but functional dialogue was treated as exactly that, and were simply boring to watch or listen to. Thankfully, Julius D'Silva is an excellent verse speaker, and his Ross brought interest and vocal variety to his scenes with the Old Man and the end of the England scene.

The Thane of Cawdor (Ken Shorter) was bound to a pillar as the bloodied soldier (one of the tortured souls of the opening scene) delivered his description of the battle, and he was messily dismembered in view of the audience. The actual death was juxtaposed with the image of Duncan leading a medieval religious ritual, his piety deliberately contrasted with the brutal slaughter of his enemies. James Clyde was a well-spoken and strong leader of soldiers, watching in dignified pleasure as the rest of the Thanes picked up Macbeth for a victory tour about the stage. This male-oriented world was one of masculine embracese and exchanges of swords, and one of the production's greatest strengths was in evoking a world of ritual and tradition. As Macbeth delivered his "If twere done" soliloquy, the Thanes were seated around the back of the stage engaged in a choreographed celebratory drinking ritual, raising their glasses and singing (led by Fleance) to the battle and each other. Evoking something of Beowulf, this element of ritual feasting led neatly up to the pivotal banquet scene in which Banquo's bloody ghost crawled out of a platter of food laid on the stage, the meats being shoved aside as a hand rose to clutch at Macbeth.

Hideous bagpipes scored the action, often from the yard, positioning the devil's pipes around the boundaries of the hell-scape from which the witches arose. The sounds of evil were most pivotal during the near-comic horror of the apparitions scene, which intelligently utilised the theoretical spaces established earlier. Macbeth was lowered into a trapdoor, basking in the heats of hell as if in a hot tub. The apparitions were then paraded in front of him, miming their words while the witches spoke the speeches. Macduff delivered his own prophecy as a ventriloquist's dummy; a voodoo baby promised Macbeth that no-one born of woman would hurt him; while an idiot-Malcolm, escorted by the Porter, babbled the Birnam Wood prophecy while shaking a rattle. Scantori's Porter, a looming Igor-like presence in Macbeth's court, became the Witch's pet in this scene, collared and leering as he escorted their helpers in. Finally, Fleance appeared with a crown on his head while crowns were passed among the Globe audience and hung on chains hanging from the roof, culminating in a furious melee of activity which suddenly vanished to leave Macbeth alone onstage. In moments such as these, Bailey's conceptual approach was satisfactorily realised.

The bloody violence that pervaded the production was ever-present on stage, especially in the brutal butchery of Macduff's family, most horrifically in the case of the daughter, who ran off stage and was brought back on hanging limply from the soldier's arms. The casual dumping of bodies into trapdoors, overseen by Clyde's Seyton, was just as horrible. Christian Bradley's strong, confident Banquo was slashed and torn, spurts of blood gushing over the audience from the stage daggers, even as he helped Fleance flee up a ladder; while the bloodied bodies of both Duncan and Lady Macbeth were displayed to the world. Lady Macbeth herself was passed out into the pit of hell, disappearing from view under the black billows, while Macbeth was forced into the same by Macduff. As Macduff announced Macbeth's death, his naked and bloodied body emerged from the pit, howling in torment as the witches cackled over their latest victim.

Conceptually, then, this was a strong production, let down in execution by a couple of weak performances and a lack of attention to the less gimmicky moments. While I approve heartily of the Globe's innovation in staging (it's a living theatre, not a museum), I think Bailey's production is a warning over how disruptive the trickery can become: it's a simple space, and attention needs to be paid to how redesigning it affects the acoustics and dynamics. Nonetheless, a decent start to the new season.


Soliman and Perseda @ The Rose Theatre Bankside

Writing about web page http://www.solimanandperseda.com/

The Rose Theatre in Bankside is a very different enterprise to its big brother around the corner, Shakespeare's Globe. Where the reconstructed Globe presents "living history", a modern reimagining of a Shakespearean theatre, the exposed archaeological remains of the Rose provide a very different kind of experience. In a low-roofed cavern, red fibre-optic light tubes outline the vague shape of the foundations, made even more eerie by their submersion under shallow water. From a viewing platform at night, as these shapes coalesce under a deep and heavy dark, theatrical history seems intangible and distant, a world away from the neatly-packaged and commercially interpreted experience of the Globe.

It was a fitting backdrop for Trifle Productions' new production of Soliman and Perseda, both theoretically and theatrically. While the Globe increasingly prioritises new writing and Shakespearean revivals, the spirit of inquiry and excavation at the Rose has filtered into the work of textual archaeology that results in revived interest in a play as neglected as Soliman. It's a fantastic play that speaks immediately to a modern audience, and Trifle are to be praised even if just for giving audiences a chance to see it on its feet. That they did so in such an effective production was icing on the cake: this was a funny, moving, powerful and thoroughly entertaining reading of Kyd's ignored tragedy, and validates the Rose's important and urgent role in supporting young companies doing exciting work.

The play was performed against the edge of the viewing gallery before a small audience, with the cavern of the Rose itself standing as backdrop to the action. This was intelligently used throughout, particularly as Basilisco (Carsten Hayes) and Piston (Michael Linsey) watched the Prince of Cyprus's tournament, using the viewing gallery as precisely that. The cavern, with its evocation of the underworld, also provided a fitting environment for the Chorus of Love (Eve Winters), Fortune (Kaye Conway) and Death (Maya Thomas). Bathed in red light, the three allegorical figures framed the play in a stylised sequence of scenes that contrasted nicely with the starkly lit, fast-paced action of the main play. The battle between genres was a relatively common framing device in the Elizabethan drama (cf. Mucedorus and A Warning for Fair Women), and here the battle was played out in a surprisingly playful way, with the three women wearing nighties and sparring in Noh-influenced abstract motions, flitting between fixed positions and tussles over mimed arrows and threads. While these scenes began a little too slowly, they picked up pace as the acts progressed, with the figures bringing on characters from the main play, manipulating them into position and claiming dominance over them. So, too, did distinctions between the three begin to emerge. Love was smug and somewhat arrogant, more mobile and graceful than the others and confident of her own essential rightness. Fortune, by contrast, was hunched and sour, glaring at the other two and protective of herself. Death, meanwhile, walked calmly between the others, a smile playing about her lips as she awaited her moment. The distant wails of a violin accompanied these choric scenes, only stopping as Death finally asserted her power in the Epilogue, stopping both motion and sound as she proclaimed her victory.

The semi-playful game of the three figures, however much it concealed more serious conflicts, reflected neatly the tone of Sophie Hickman's production that successfully juxtaposed comedy and tragic pathos to strong effect. Key to achieving this were the standout performances of Hayes's Basilisco and Linsey's Piston. Hayes, in leather jacket and pink trousers, nailed the foppish confidence of Basilisco, rendering him ridiculous without reducing him to utter idiocy. His continual self-justification, particularly after his circumcision as he hobbled onstage with legs spread, was always entertaining but evoked a certain amount of pity, and his final realisation that he loved himself more than Perseda contained a note of triumph. Apart from a moment of OTT celebration after kissing Perseda's corpse, Hayes achieved the impressive feat of creating a Basilisco restrained enough to be consistently believable, allowing him to become a powerful audience surrogate. Linsey's cocky Piston, meanwhile, was one of the most engaging fools I've seen onstage in a while, the character always preserving himself and protecting his own interests. He provided the necessary foil for the romantic main plot, with a constantly exasperated demeanour perfectly deflating the high-blown language of his superiors. As the play moved towards its ultimate tragedy, Linsey made an ideal transition to the more serious matter of the final act, injecting genuine pathos into his report of Erastus's death and his plea to mourn for Perseda. These two provided the true heart of the production, and their deaths felt cruel and pointless.

A screen at one end of the stage allowed for shadow effects throughout, although the audience were angled away from it so that it was difficult to see. By far the best use of the screen was in its ingenious use for Cassandra Hodges's Perseda's confrontation with Israel Oyelumade's Soliman in Act V. As Perseda defied him from the city walls, her silhouette appeared on the screen, standing above the audience's heads and looking down on Soliman. As well as providing the necessary staging effect, it also had the impact of androgynising Perseda, presenting her as faceless and genderless to ours and Soliman's eyes, clearly explaining his ignorant slaughter of her. The screen was also effectively used for showing the red-tinged image of Death, plucking up her foes as they died onstage. However, the use of the screen for Soliman's asides during Erastus's murder was far less effective: his booming voice had a Voice of God effect on stage, rendering his internal musings as tannoy announcements. To use the same device for both the most public and the most private moments of the production was a mistake, but didn't take away from its effectiveness when used well.

Ben Galpin brought out Erastus's youth nicely, rendering him a careless and often whiny boy in his earlier scenes (offset effectively by Piston's worldliness) but developing into a stronger figure after his transition to the Turkish court. His relationship with Perseda was played for comic value at first, the two playful in happiness and childishly petulant in dispute. Interestingly, I was left with the conclusion that, as lovers, neither of the two is particularly likeable; both were characterised by their quick impulsive leaps to bad decisions and their inability to deal with emotional conflict. It was only after their reunification and return to Rhodes that we saw a quick glimpse of the two as complete adults, sharing a tender and mutually joking tenderness that emphasised the injustice of their subsequent separation. The two were far more powerful when apart, with Galpin's Erastus finding nobility both in his first meeting with Soliman and in the face of his accusers at the fake "court", while Hodges's headstrong Perseda came into her own in the final act, setting her jaw as she killed Lucina and handling herself powerfully against Soliman. The aggressive energies which made her a frustrating partner in the earlier relationship positioned her instead as a strong and formidable leader in her final moments.

Oyelumade made for an imposing Soliman, and his tendency to spend much of his time in laughter did little to alleviate the threat he posed. Strong and athletic, and dominating the stage in his appearances. The simple staging evoked the Turkish court with little more than a cushioned chair, yet Oyelumade's fast movements and deep, drawling voice created a completely separate world, with different rules and standards to Rhodes. The adopted accents of the cast playing Turkish characters were often offputting and unnecessary; far more effective were the hierarchical blocking and deferrence to Soliman that restructured the locus of onstage power. Soliman's passions drove the entire second half of the play, and Oyelmuade's energy and vocal range ensured that the impact was continually referred back to him. He was supported extremely effectively by Stephen Barden as Brusor. Powerful in support, Barden's strong and foreboding presence was instrumental in establishing the hierarchies of the Turkish court, whether bowing cross-armed to his master or unsheathing a dagger with a murderous scowl as Erastus bested Soliman in their mock duel. This glowering, intimidating Brusor, even from his first appearance in the tournament at Rhodes (where he exchanged pointed looks with Ferdinando) placed him as the man to watch, and as his own bitterness came into effect, so did his "support" for his leader come to have an increasingly influential part.

The production repeatedly asked us to respond to characters who met unjust fates, and didn't shy away from the horrific killings of John Triggs's Julio and Sam Banjamin's Guelpio, or those of the bumbling witnesses procured by Soliman. The most pathos, though, came from Carly Jukes's Lucina. Devastated by the loss of Ferdinando, her subsequent capture saw Lucina reduced to a constant state of whimpering fear, terrified by Brusor and the prospect of marriage with him. As Perseda was allowed to leave, Lucina held her arms out after her with a small wail, immediately stifled by her new husband. Her offer to help with Soliman's wooing was motivated entirely by the terror she felt; and as Perseda pronounced her a traitor, Jukes backed away, yet again articulating sounds of fear and guilt. Her murder was one of the cruellest moments of the production, and the fact it was at the hands of the heroine complicated our emotional responses even further. This wasn't a world of good and bad so much as one of wrong decisions and unfair consequences.

Ferdinando was intelligently conflated with the Spanish knight which, while it might not stand up to close scrutiny (why would a man who is Philippo's "loving cousin" need to be formally introduced before the tournament while Basilisco was acknowledged to be known? etc.), was far more dramatically effective than introducing the character later on. As well as opening up a feud between Brusor and him, it also allowed Lucina's relationship with him to be more playful, she besotted by the exotic knight, and made sense of his disappointment at being beaten by Erastus. Andres Ortiz's performance allowed the character a certain amount of romantic dignity, though his death scene was played too abruptly to be effective. This was a problem more in Erastus's response to it, which had him begin the fight still in smug humour and end it without any real sense of guilt; a more substantial change of tone here would have been much more effective.

This plot-driven play was filled with nice grace notes, from Amurath's line to Soliman "for loving thee I die?" phrased as a question before his stabbing rather than in response to it, to Steve Lee's hysterical mule mooing in response to Basilisco's descriptions of his injuries. The uncomfortable disjunct between comedy and pathos (most notably in the hideously inappropriate Basilisco offering his body to Lucina and Perseda as they grieved) is the hardest thing to get right about the play, yet this production's sensitivity and drive ensured it played out in a rivetting and affecting way. While the audience continued to laugh even as Soliman read Perseda's note informing him of her poisoned lips (and I defy any company to play this completely seriously), it was Death's final reclamation of her status as most powerful that reverberated in the mind after the curtain calls. It was a powerful reminder of Kyd's brilliance beyond The Spanish Tragedy, and a call for renewed attention to a play years ahead of its time in terms of plot, character and tone.


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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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