All entries for June 2007

June 28, 2007

Twelfth Night @ Warwick Arts Centre

There are dangers to taking on Shakespeare. People are obviously drawn to the history, the accessibility, the guaranteed audiences and the copyright-free texts, but sometimes the dangers get overlooked. Perhaps the most overlooked problem when tackling a Shakespeare play is the question of “Why?”. When every play has such a rich performance history, why do it again? What is new about your production? Why do we need this production now?

This is a problem more easily overcome when tackling one of the more obscure plays, as one group are doing in Warwick Student Arts Festival with ‘Cymbeline’, a play which has had no student performances in local memory for quite some time, if ever. However, when tackling one of the more canonical texts, it becomes a different matter. If you’re going to do ‘Hamlet’ or ‘Macbeth’, for example, you need to know why. Tonight’s production of ‘Twelfth Night’, the other Shakespearean offering at WSAF unfortunately failed to make a case for itself.

I don’t know if director Alex Knight saw Filter’s production of ‘Twelfth Night’ during the Complete Works Festival, but the two invite close comparison. Filter cut the play to an hour and five minutes, Knight to an hour and a half. Filter performed it with six actors, Knight with seven. Both companies performed in studio sized spaces, both doubled Viola and Sebastian. This had the unfortunate effect, from my perspective, of making tonight’s production seem highly derivative and, without the resources of a professional company, inferior.

The nature of WSAF means that productions have short rehearsal periods, low technical capabilities and very little funding, which obviously limits capabilities to an extent. However, several recent student productions have recently demonstrated how excellent drama can be created on a shoestring with a strong company. It’s a shame, because I think a good production lay at the heart of this performance, but there was clearly still a long way to go.

Sam Kinchin-Smith (Feste)

‘Twelfth Night’ boasted on its Facebook group of one of Warwick’s best casts, which is somewhat of an overstatement. The 90 minute running time was partly achieved through cutting, but mostly managed by the company speaking their parts at a gallop, with little inflection, expression or, in some cases, any sense of interest in what they were saying. The plot raced so fast (yet keeping all its major elements) that a prior knowledge of the play was needed to keep up, and a steadier approach would have given the actors time to inject some emotion or feeling into their lines.

It didn’t help that the approach to the play was a relatively serious one, with a sombre mood throughout. While this could have worked, the lack of time to engage with or get to know any of the characters meant that the audience lacked that connection which would have allowed us to care what was going on. Viola particularly suffered here, with Claire Trevien providing a cocky, unlikable Viola/Cesario who welcomed and dismissed everyone she spoke to in seconds and never had time to engage with anyone, either on stage or in the audience. The doubling of Viola and Sebastian, an interesting (if not unique) staging device, was here ultimately resolved with a full-length mirror, resulting in the ultimate image of Sebastian standing with Olivia while Orsino talked into his own reflection- a ridiculous image that removed the central character at the climax of her story. There was potential here, but it was clearly underdeveloped and the moment was swiftly passed by, thus forestalling any embarrassment.

The other particularly irritating device was a clapping, that ‘off-stage’ actors did in unison while certain scenes were happening on-stage, such as Malvolio’s reading of the letter. I honestly don’t know what the intended effect was of these random rhythms, but in practice they drowned out all dialogue from where I was sitting (on the front row) and seemed relatively arbritrary in their execution. I found myself, to my disappointment, longing for an interval so I could soothe the headache from straining to hear the dialogue, and was dismayed to realise that the whole play was going to be done in one act.

It wasn’t all bad. Tom Steward’s Sir Toby was funny, and there was one very funny moment towards the end (which slips my mind now) that had me laughing out loud. Sam Kinchin-Smith’s Feste, while weak onstage, had an excellent offstage presence, watching with a wry smile from a keyboard and mouthing along to other character’s lines, lending the character an interesting metatheatrical element which was sadly not carried through in the play proper. Overall, though, this was a very weak production which I really wanted to like, but lent nothing new to the play and was marred by poor performances.

June 27, 2007

Little Thorns @ The CAPITAL Centre

It’s been some time coming, but this week has seen the final performances of ‘Little Thorns’ in conjunction with the CAPITAL Centre, where I work. Written by student Peter Cant, this project was first devised with assistance from the CAPITAL/RSC Playwright-In-Residence, Adriano Shaplin, then performed as a rehearsed reading with RSC associate actor Richard Pasco, and finally performed as a full piece over the last three days with actor Jeffery Dench (brother of Dame Judi, though it’s an unfair thing to point out as he’s a well-respected actor in his own right) taking over from Pasco. And all in the CAPITAL Centre!

An interesting set saw a bank of TVs, most old and battered, piled across the back of the stage. Throughout the performance, several of these flickered to life and complimented the main action- some showed a live feed from a camera at the side of the stage, some showed stills, others represented past events being discussed onstage. The ongoing images of nature and external activity lent an interesting ‘outer’ feel to the play which contrasted nicely with the spartan interior of the studio.

The play itself centred around two artists, Lillian and Stephen, who were in love with each other as well as creating art together. While searching for inspiration they came across an old man, Marcel, living rough, having recently left his wife. They took him home as their next ‘project’, and from here on in the play took two separate roads- both debating the nature of art as Lillian and Stephen struggled over their ideas of how to represent Marcel through their work (with input from sleazy commercial agent, Hugh), and also looking at the strain put on the relationship between the three in their living together, Lillian and Stephen drifting apart while Marcel tore into their lives, despite also desperately craving attention.

Kate Richards (Lillian) and Oliver Turner (Stephen)

The play worked well at capturing the often shallow and pretentious, often deeply insightful ways that artists have of thinking- one memorable moment featuring Stephen frustratedly trying to get Lillian to say what she actually meant rather than losing herself in her creative bubble. Their detached approach towards Marcel almost dehumanised them at certain times, particularly as he sat in an armchair, chains around them, growling at them to leave him alone while Stephen admiringly talked about, “the light pouring from his every orifice”.

There was a very human story at the heart of ‘Little Thorns’, though, and this was primarily brought out by the amazing Jeffery Dench. He gave an excellent showcase in dramatic reading- having not had time to learn his lines, he read from a book throughout yet still held the audience captive with his bile and his comic mannerisms. Playing up to the camera constantly trained on him, he ripped up books and cushions, pulled faces and shuffled about grimacing- yet the play ended on him as he sat alone, pleading, “Stay. Don’t stay. Stay”. His portrayal of the old man who has been thrust into the public eye unexpectedly was convincing, and his righteous indignation at the way he had been treated was made all the more heartbreaking by his quiet despair in the face of being left alone once more.

The three student performers were all top-notch. Rory Gill gave an impressively odious air to Hugh, walking around in a suit with his nose in the air and clearly uninterested in the emotional impact of the project on his artists. Kate Richards and Oliver Turner as the artists were also engaging, painting a fascinating and often moving portrait of a couple working on very different levels. As Stephen started holding secret meetings with Hugh and Lillian withdrew to confide in Marcel, the two seemed barely to recognise each other anymore, resulting in a wonderful moment as Marcel translated, for the audience’s benefit, what each of them actually meant as they conversed.

This was an inspired piece of theatre, that transcended its student origins to become something immediately relevant and meaningful. The subject matter- the potentially cold nature of art and the carelessness towards emotions and people when art is at stake- are all too relevant, and Cant wisely allowed the audience to come to their own conclusions. Anyone left untouched by the lonely old man sitting in his chair at the end of the production, though, must be cold indeed.

June 24, 2007

The Lonesome West @ Warwick Arts Centre

Student drama is, at best, a mixed bag. I’ve been based at the University of Warwick, which has a very large and very active drama community, for six years now, and in that time have seen a great many student productions. In that time, I’ve sat through some real shockers, that have tried far too hard to impress or be revolutionary, and ended up relying on gimmicks or so-called ‘controversy’. However, every now and then a production comes along that doesn’t need tricks, that can rely on the strength of its performers and on intelligent and sensitive direction and design. Tonight, Warwick University Drama Society (WUDS) did just that with their production of ‘The Lonesome West’.

Martin McDonagh’s play is a fascinating and darkly comic portrayal of small-town Irish life. The four characters (two feuding brothers, an alcoholic priest and a young girl) interact in a way that parodies the extreme storylines of soap operas, but characterises its protagonists especially well, leading us to care about all four even while we laugh at their absurd situations.

This is one of the most professional looking productions I’ve seen in the arts centre studio in quite some time (including those by professional companies), and designer Al Binnie Lubbock should be proud. A double-layered set featured an exterior area complete with the shallows of a lake downstage, and the detailed interior of a small house upstage, in which most of the action was set.

The four actors were all exceptionally strong. Charlene Barton’s Girlene, the only female character, captured both the external brazenness and the hidden vulnerability of the young girl extremely well, and in the second act she came into her own, particularly in a tender scene with Sam Chapman’s Father Welsh. The writing came through particularly well here as cliche was continually averted, the two actors playing an emotionally harrowing scene with great naturalness.

Sam Chapman (Revd. Welsh)

Chapman was tremendous as Father Welsh, continuing to haunt the play long after the Priest had taken his long and painfully slow walk through the water to his death. This moment was tastefully handled, as he walked toward a bright light that reflected the rippling water around the auditorium. The moment was broken by a soliloquy, where he turned to have his face bathed in white light- an effective idea, which did unfortunately jar in an otherwise beautiful moment, but at least prevented the mood of the play swinging too far one way. Chapman was convincing as the struggling priest who couldn’t believe the horrors happening all around him, and his scream as he scalded his hands in desperation was simultaneously hysterical and horrifying.

The play really belonged to the brothers Coleman and Valene, however, played by Patrick Niknejad and Leo Miles. Their constant conflict was both funny in the way it took sibling rivalry to extremes, but also upsetting as the hurt they inflicted on each other continued without end. It was funny, though I am suspicious that I found it slightly less funny than much of the audience- but then, I’m someone who did have a brother my own age to fight with daily as I was growing up, and there was much to recognise in their feuding (granted, I never cut the ears off my brother’s dog or shot my father- details only). The growing nastiness, particularly as Coleman’s eyes lit up as he decided to cook Valene’s precious figurines, amused in its extreme nature, but was also disturbing for how easy and natural it was.

Miles was excellent as Valene, hoarding over his new stove and figurines of the saints to an almost cackling degree as he protected them from his brother. Niknejad, by contrast, was more casual and natural as Coleman, with a quietly evil streak to him that was even more terrifying than Valene’s edgy temper. The two worked well together though, their physical fighting looking suitably like they’d been practising it for years and the more tense moments really putting the audience on the edge of their seats. Perhaps the best moment, though, was the point at which they suddenly and unexpectedly agreed on something, and nodded brotherly at each other, the vaguest of hints that the connection between them might not destroy them after all.

The play built up to its final set-piece, as the two brothers apologised for all the horrible things they had done to each other over their lives, and here the actors really reached their peak, as they went ever so slowly over half an hour from geniality to a showdown with guns and knives. The growing tension between them was perfectly dialled up as the scene progressed, again creating in the audience that rare simultaneous feeling of detached amusement and emotional investment.

My one complaint would perhaps be the scene changes, where two characters (named in the programme, though with no lines) entered and slowly set up the scene, while staring ominously at the departing characters. While this led to one nice moment, as they handed Father Welsh’s discarded pint glass to each other after his death, it seemed to have little real point and dragged out the scene changes for too long. However, this did give us plenty of time to enjoy the wonderful accordion music of musician Vic Smith, who played throughout the opening and interval and between each scene, creating a fantastic mood that greatly added to the production. I would also like to take a gentle swipe at the accents which, while generally strong and consistent throughout, had an odd tendency to occasionally slip into Scottish and, most shockingly, Australian. This didn’t detract from the excellent performances, but did raise the occasional unintentional smile!

In all, a wonderful play that, if nothing else, reminded me of the heights that WUDS can reach when they set out not to shock or to indulge, but to simply present great theatre.

June 10, 2007

A Matter Of Life And Death @ The National Theatre

After Tuesday’s visit to see one of my favourite theatre companies in London, I found myself in the capital yet again on Saturday afternoon to see another company whose work I love. However, while Cheek By Jowl disappointed me somewhat, Kneehigh’s new production at the National was, to my mind, the best work I’ve seen them do yet.

A quick note about the theatre, as this was my first time to the National- I loved it! Just as on my trips to the Barbican, I was overwhelmed by the sheer size of the place, and all the exciting things happening at the South Bank Centre next door added to the atmosphere. The Olivier stage itself was also a real treat, and my £10 seats in the circle (a very good initiative on the National’s part) afforded a fantastic view of the whole space, not obstructed by arches or facades. The full extent of the stage was used, giving Kneehigh a massive space to play in.

Reviews so far seem to have concentrated on the classic 1946 movie on which it is based. I have actually seen the original ‘A Matter Of Life And Death’, and thoroughly enjoyed it, but unfortunately reviewers have been using this to emphasise the production’s failure to match up to the film. It’s a weakness of Kneehigh’s critics that they repeatedly fail to dissociate the company from their source material. Kneehigh’s productions are their own work, based loosely on an original but very much a new piece of writing. ‘Nights At The Circus’ wasn’t Angela Carter’s, and ‘Cymbeline’ wasn’t Shakespeare’s. Kneehigh excel at creating responses to their sources, using their unique storytelling style to draw new things out of the material. Yet the reviewers for this production have disappointingly simply listed the differences and decided the new version isn’t as good. It’s a shame, for this was a bold and exciting piece of theatre that really deserved better.

The play focussed on a young couple, Peter and June, who meet over the radio while Peter’s WW2 plane is being shot down in flames. Peter bails out without a parachute but miraculously survives. He goes to find June, and the two fall in love. However, it soon transpires that the heavenly conductor who was meant to escort Peter to Heaven upon his death lost his way in the fog, and that Peter is actually living on borrowed time. When he comes to rectify his mistake, Peter lodges an appeal with the heavenly court on grounds that he has since fallen in love, and that there is far more at stake owing to the conductor’s error. Falling into a coma, he battles his case with the help of his doctor, who dies during the course of the play and thus is able to act as his attorney in Heaven.

Spectacle was the order of the day. An enormous video wall displayed moving scenery, and two enormous staircases spun around the stage, nurses and patients hanging from them. The nurses and patients took the role of a visual chorus, creating tableauxs and moving images both on Earth and in Heaven. This combined with an incredible amount of aerial choreography- props and furniture were hoisted to the ceiling, actors flew about and descended from on high, beds burst into flame, motorbikes crashed and the film’s iconic moving staircase was created by a series of hospital beds suspended at staggered heights, across which June threw herself. Peter’s dramatic bailing out saw nurses lying on hospital beds peddling frantically on upside down bikes, while Peter sat on the top of a staircase being violently shaken by the company. In another beautiful image, June and Peter’s burgeoning love affair was shown as the two lay in a bed that was swung in a huge pendulum arc from side to side of the stage, while the Conductor descended from above and smoothly dodged the swinging furniture.

The spectacular visuals, however, were there to tell a story. Here, the message was a strong and simple anti-war one. As Peter appealed his case to return to Earth, the back wall opened to a haze of flame and smoke, and women from Coventry and Dresden killed by bombs emerged, screaming at him to ask why the rules couldn’t be broken for them if they could for him. The dead Shakespeare was brought in to philosophise over death, and a whole subplot featured a depressed airman who hanged himself during a hospital production of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. Here, war became a bloody and pointless exercise, which tears apart families and lovers indiscriminately and ultimately benefits no-one.

Performances were solid throughout, in the Kneehigh style. Regulars such as Craigh Johnson and Mike Shepherd were as good as ever, but the play belonged to the two leads, lending plenty of pathos to their chipper English lovers, and to Douglas Hodge as an excellent Dr. Frank. Professional, super-intelligent and passionate, he gave a very good reading of a difficult part, balancing his eccentricity with an honest sense of justice. Special mention also has to go to Gisli Orin Gardarsson as Conductor 71, a Norweigan escapologist and magician whose aerial acrobatics were impressive, and who was consistently funny throughout, whether crawling through the audience, throwing down flash bombs before attempting to scuttle out of sight or simply twirling his moustache and reliving his glory days in the theatre.

The production did at times feel self-consciously clever. Frank and June’s table-tennis match, for example, was realised through a boy with a white ball on a stick bouncing the ball around the stage, before the entire company entered to perform a dance routine with sticks and balls. However, most of the time the self-consciousness worked in the play’s favour. The music in particular, an eclectic mix by the live band ranging from jazz to rock to scat/rap to nursery rhymes, lent a great deal of atmosphere and variety to the play, as well as being beautiful in its own right.

Perhaps most excitingly, though, the play had two alternate endings. As the trial drew to a close with no decision made and all the arguments having been put forth, it was suddenly realised that, for all of this talk, death is as arbritraty as flicking a coin. The Boy, who had been onstage throughout as a chorus figure, announced that a coin had been spinning for the entire play, and asked a gentleman in the audience to flick a coin. Heads Peter lived, Tails he died. At this performance, Heads was flicked, and Peter woke up in the arms of his beloved, to the audience’s pleasure. We assumed that it was a double-headed coin, until I bought a copy of the text afterwards and found the alternate ending- if it was Tails, then Peter died on the operating table. It would have been very exciting to see both options, and if anyone has seen the ‘Tails’ ending, please let me know how it was! The point was clear, though- ultimately, nothing that has come before matters- the ending is down to sheer luck.

June 06, 2007

Cymbeline @ The Barbican Theatre

I love Cheek By Jowl. I’ve seen several of their productions, both English and Russian, over the last few years, and they are the company who have most consistently impressed me with their intelligent approach to classical texts, their innovative ideas and groundbreaking use of space and movement, directed by Declan Donnellan. In addition, they’re an incredibly nice bunch of people, and their willingness to get involved in student activities has been fantastic, even down to doing a three day workshop with myself and a group of other MA students right at the start of the ‘Cymbeline’ rehearsal period. There’s been something of a running joke, as when we did the workshops, the part of Cymbeline himself hadn’t yet been cast, so I played it- I am, in fact, Cheek By Jowl’s first ever Cymbeline!

I hope from this it will become immediately clear that, when I admit that I saw last night’s finished production of the play at the Barbican and was disappointed, that doesn’t mean to say it was bad. On the contrary, this was an often funny, often moving production that worked wonders with the huge Barbican stage and raised some fascinating insights into one of Shakespeare’s less performed plays.

The stage of the Barbican was stripped back to its absolute extremes, creating a cavernous space used to the full, actors disappearing almost as if off the horizon when leaving via the back exits. Temporary seating was erected, suspended in the centre of the auditorium (a la The Cube), so that the front row had their feet on the stage itself. The enormous space allowed them to create fascinating scenarios- the conversation among the men in Italy, for example, was spread to several corners of the back stage, with gaping spaces between the actors working to emphasise Posthumus’ outsider status (central, surrounded at a distance by the others) and Iachimo’s voyeuristic qualities (hovering at the back, overlooking everyone).

As the second act began, Imogen walked round the sheer boundaries of the space as Cymbeline, Cloten and Pisanio discussed her absence in the centre. Donnellan’s fluid approach to scenes worked well here, throwing up interesting juxtapositions- the evils of the queen being commented on just as she left; Posthumus remaining on stage to glare threateningly at Imogen as she read his letter; Cymbeline appearing behind his sons as Belarius explained their origins. No character was allowed to stray too far from our minds, to the point of even dramatising non-textual material, such as Imogen’s falling into a coma and Arviragus’ attempts to revive her with music (here, an old gramophone).

The other aspect of Cheek By Jowl’s work I have become familiar with over time is the often aggressively sexual performance of key scenes. In ‘Othello’, this translated to Cassio and Desdemona both lying down and groaning orgasmically as Othello imagined their adultery. Here, the often chaste relationship between Imogen and Posthumus became scarred from the start through their sexual desire for each other, the two’s parting conversation turning into foreplay as they knelt on the floor together, mouths open and almost touching, Imogen straddling Posthumus’ body (far less crude than it sounds). Later, Iachimo’s attempts to win Imogen over went as far as a lingering kiss, before she guiltily thrust him from her. Imogen was here a young woman, wrestling with her hormones and clearly desperate, quite frankly, to get laid. The closing moment of the play came as the reunited couple finally shared a passionate, Hollywood-style kiss while the rest of the cast waved to the unseen, adoring crowds.

Tom Hiddleston’s performance was particularly extraordinary. Doubling both Posthumus and Cloten, which had the effect of bringing out the similarities between the two characters as well as justifying Imogen’s confusion over the dead body. Changing between the two in stylised moments where he donned a brown overcoat, placed glasses on his face and reverentially put Imogen’s ring on his finger, turning himself back into Posthumus. As the hero he gave a twitchy performance, often sinister and very troubled, attempting to cope with his world crumbling around him. He was even better as Cloten, however- an upper class twit with two sycophantic followers laughing at his every word. Suited, arrogant and smooth, he was very funny, particularly as a mike and stand were produced for ‘Hark Hark The Lark’ and he and his supporters performed the song as if a boy band, to great comic effect.

The other performers were generally very good. Gwendonline Christie’s Queen was a highlight, towering a head taller than anyone else and being mother to all, particularly her husband, as Cymbeline buried his head in her chest in grief over the tearing apart of his family, and Cloten as she pinched him by the ear. Jodie McNee painted a compelling portrait of Imogen’s descent from red-dressed princess (and a slightly spoiled one at that, though not unpleasantly so) to young boy lost in the country. John Macmilland Daniel Percival gave a particularly bloody portrayal of the twins, glorying in Cloten’s bloody head (Arviragus wiping it over his face) and and acting as Cymbeline’s cutthroats in the final scene, and Richard Cant was engaging as a camp and flustered Pisanio. The company worked solidly as an ensemble, playing smoothly together and keeping up a good pace.

So, why did I say I was disappointed? Because there were a few key points which let the production down. Iachimo was surprisingly underused, and made very little impression in his few scenes. The key scene where Imogen discovers the body of Cloten was incredibly slow and lacked impact, and the scenes of the war, while creating an impressive tableaux of images, marked an uncomfortable and disjointed change to a storytelling narrative. This wouldn’t have perhaps been so bad, were it not for the wonderful fluidity of the first three quarters of the play, and the shift felt clumsy.

All of the above was forgivable, but what spoiled the play entirely for me was the final scene. As soon as Cymbeline announced victory and a bunch of balloons fell from the ceiling as the court conga-ed around the stage (in itself, quite funny), the play dropped the ball. A deeply irritating jaunty tune underscored the whole scene, which flipped between farcical comedy, violence, cruelty and genuinely moving moments as the revelations came thick and fast. I tried hard to ride with it, I really did, but eventually I accepted that it was a mess. Lots of nice moments strung together do not make a good scene, and the overall impact of the scene was negated by having no clear point of reference, theme or even basic emotion. While the moments themselves (in particular Hiddleston speaking Shakespeare’s greatest line, “Hang there like fruit, my soul/ Till the tree die” as Imogen wrapped herself around him like a child) were lovely, the combination of moving and funny that had served the play so well until then was upset and ruined.

It’s a difficult thing when a production ends so disappointingly after so much promise, as you end up leaving the theatre feeling negative. Yet it has to be recognised that this was a very impressive performance with many great things. However, I’m spoiled by Cheek By Jowl. ‘Three Sisters’ changed the way I look at Chekov, ‘The Changeling’ the way I think of Middleton, and ‘Twelfth Night’ was one of the greatest Shakespearean productions I’ve ever seen. This production simply didn’t change my life- which is what I’ve come to expect form the company. It had its good moments, but it had its flaws. I am, however, no less excited when I think about next year’s ‘Troilus and Cressida’.

June 03, 2007

The BBC Shakespeare

While seeing the Complete Works Festival has been the main part of my work over the last year, I’ve been quietly supplementing this with two other ‘Bardathons’. The first is the academic, where I’ve been reading the Arden editions of every play, and I’ll probably post some thoughts about that once I’ve finished (I’m on the last one now!). The second is the screen Bardathon, where I’ve been trying to watch as many filmed versions of Shakespeare’s plays as possible, in order to get an idea of the range of interpretations out there.

Part of this has included steeling myself to watch the entire infamous BBC Shakespeare Collection. Screened from 1979 to 1985, and including everything in the canon bar ‘The Two Noble Kinsmen’, these productions have a generally very bad reputation as being dull, uninventive and bound by their funders’ wishes for the series to be a straight, traditional and “definitive” archive of Shakespeare performances. Low production values and an almost complete confinement to the studio haven’t helped with the enduring image of them as low quality TV aspiring to something they couldn’t reach.

So imagine my surprise, having just finished watching all 37 films, to find that they’re not nearly as bad as I’d thought! Granted, there is an initial mental jump that needs to be made, as the productions do look dated- but then, so do Olivier’s movies. Behind the static camerawork and the God-awful 70s haircuts (thinking especially of Proteus and Valentine in ‘Two Gentlemen Of Verona’), lie an often highly interesting group of interpretations.

Granted, some productions failed miserably. ‘Antony & Cleopatra’ stands out as particularly interminable, even Jane Lapotaire’s Cleopatra failing to raise the production. ‘The Merry Wives Of Windsor’ too, despite Ben Kinglsey’s performance as Ford and Richard Griffiths certainly looking the part as Falstaff, also suffered from an overwhelming dreariness.

When the series succeeded, though, it really sparkled. One of my favourites was ‘Macbeth’, with Nicol Williamson and Jane Lapotaire. Director Jack Gold created a wonderful medieval atmosphere, and the production brought out fascinating moments of character- Lady Macbeth orgasming over her husband’s letter and a surprisingly dangerous Macduff being stand outs.

Some of British TV’s leading sitcom actors proved they could handle weighty parts with flair- Leonard Rossiter made an excellent King John, while John Cleese was a Puritan and remarkably interesting Petruchio, treading a line between flamboyancy and restraint. Robert Lindsay kept appearing throughout the series too, playing Fabian, Lysander, Benedick and Iachimo, showcasing his versatility.

John Gielgud started the whole thing off as the Prologue to ‘Romeo and Juliet’, though his appearance at the start did cast the rest of the production into shadow. Alan Rickman’s Tybalt, though (his first screen appearance) shone throughout. The series was then followed up with an acting showcase that would ensure a sellout in any theatre- ‘Richard II’ starring Derek Jacobi, Jon Finch, John Gielgud, Charles Gray and several more in an intelligent and moving reading of the play, particularly in Jacobi’s final scenes as the fading Richard.

A young Helen Mirren made an excellent Rosalind in ‘As You Like It’, in one of the two productions that ventured out of the studio, using the local woodlands. ‘Henry VIII’ went a step further, setting itself entirely in stately homes and castles, and featuring a particularly strong performance from Timothy West as Wolsey.

The undoubted highlight of the series for me was the ‘Henry VI’/’Richard III’ cycle directed by Jane Howell. Completely breaking with any idea of a ‘house style’, she directed the four plays as a continuous ensemble cycle, playing with theatrical concepts such as a single set (a children’s adventure playground) and clever doubling (Talbot reappeared as Jack Cade, the dead Henry VI became a priest, and the primary Yorkists – York, Warwick etc. – returned as Richmond’s army against Richard III). Self-conscious theatricality, such as pantomime horses and captioned titles, emphasised playfulness in Part 1, but then the set became gradually more battered, the violence became more bloody and the whole tone of the project eventually ended in the dark political machinations of Ron Cook’s unconventional but highly effective Richard III. The final controversial image, of the insane Margaret sitting on top of a mountain of mutilated bodies, cradling the battered frame of Richard and laughing manically, is about the most brutal image I’ve ever seen in a Shakespeare production.

Another of the finer productions was Jonathan Miller’s ‘Timon Of Athens’, which gave Jonathan Pryce free rein to vent his spleen in a sparse landscape straight out of Beckett. Miller, as the second series producer, was the man who steered the series away from artistic stagnation through his willingness to break the rules laid down by the original funders, and also directed some of the series’ better moments. ‘King Lear’ was a particularly impressive entry, with Michael Hordern as an excellent lead and solid support from Frank Middlemass (Fool), Anton Lesser (Edgar), Penelope Wilton (Regan), Brenda Blethyn (Cordelia), Michael Kitchen (Edmund) and in particular John Bird’s Albany, giving a great deal of depth to a smaller role.

‘Othello’ is worth seeing for the pairing of Antony Hopkins and Bob Hoskins as Othello and Iago, who had a good chemistry that was let down by the claustrophobic and somewhat uninventive production. ‘Hamlet’, the other major tragedy with a starry cast, saw Derek Jacobi on good form as an older Hamlet and ably supported by Patrick Stewart’s unusually sympathetic Claudius.

The late plays generally worked well, particularly Jane Howell’s heavily stylised ‘Winter’s Tale’ and David Jones’ ‘Pericles’. Fortunately, those plays which have only had major screenings in this series were mostly fairly solid, and Mike Gwilym as Pericles stood out as excellent. ‘Coriolanus’ fared slightly less well, attempting a more experimental style but coming out as a slightly choppy mess. Mike Gwilym and Alan Howard as Aufidius and Caius, though, worked well together.

‘The Comedy Of Errors’ was a generally very interesting production, and clearly inspired Nancy Meckler’s RSC production in 2005, though The Who’s Roger Daltrey was really miscast as the two Dromios. ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’, despite being the production that most blatantly ignored the rules by setting itself centuries after its time, suffered from an overly slow approach, while ‘Measure For Measure’ excelled in its willingness to take its time and allow the actors, particularly Kate Nelligan’s Isabella and Tim Pigott-Smith’s Angelo, to fully explore their roles.

The series has its flaws, no-one would dispute that. But in watching them with few expectations, I have to say that I was continually pleasantly surprised at the willingness to innovate and the daring decisions made by some of the dictators. The reputation of the series as conservative is fair, but only part of the story, and I would strongly urge giving some of them a second chance.

June 02, 2007

Sizwe Banzi Is Dead @ Warwick Arts Centre

I didn’t have great expectations for this performance, the latest from Peter Brook’s Paris company, Theatre des Bouffes du Nord. ‘Tierno Bokar’, which played two years ago, was the most soporific piece of live entertainment I have ever seen, while last year’s one-man show ‘The Grand Inquisitor’ provoked huge complaints among audiences owing to the actor not even having learned his lines. However, I love the play ‘Sizwe Banzi Is Dead’, and there’s been much renewed interest in it over the last couple of months due to the original actors, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, performing it at the National, so I decided it would still be worth a look.

I’m very glad I did. With the Arts Centre theatre stage extended to provide an enormous square studio-sized performance space, bringing the action right up to the audience, this proved to be an intimate and highly intelligent reading of the play, both funny and affecting, and with two excellent central performances.

Peter Brook’s current work seems to focus primarily on the actor- at least, this is what has come across in his recent pieces. Here, a spartan set (lights, a couple of clothes frames, some cardboard boxes) provided an effective storytelling space for the two actors to play in. Using the props and other items onstage to act out the narratives the actors were describing, Brook directed a visually fascinating and multilayered production, with the actors flipping in and out of the stories they were telling, performing in a highly physical manner.

Habib Dembele, as Buntu and Styles, gave a particularly remarkable performance, keeping the audience thoroughly entertained by himself for the first 20 minutes or so, as Styles talked about the visit of Henry Ford Jr. to his factory and his own background in becoming a photographer. Playing all the parts within his own narrative, Dembele was very funny as he performed the conversations between Styles and Baas Bradley, switching easily between corpulent factory owner and rebellious employee. Both actor and character clearly relished the opportunity to perform: chatting to the audience, running up and down, shrieking and shouting, laughing and whispering, he had the audience entirely in the palm of his hand.

The hulking Pitcho Womba Konga, a good head and a half taller than his fellow actor, worked well in contrast to Styles/Buntu. Slow, simple and bewildered by the prejudice and restrictions of the world he found himself in, Konga’s Sizwe was an innocent, a naive country man incapable of seeing the hoops through which he was expected to jump. Occasionally he looked ready to hit the hyper-energetic Buntu as he jumped about the stage, scheming and planning, but ultimately always allowed himself to be led. It was through Sizwe, though, that the play’s most moving moments came, particularly as he stripped off his shirt, demanding his right to be a man. His slow attempts to learn his new identity number were typical of the general tone of the character though- very funny, yet moving in the serious implications of what he was trying to do.

The play’s weakest moment came in the explicit comment from Sizwe that “our skin is trouble”, which (while being the point of the whole play) came across as moral of the day. This was a production that worked wonders with its subtleties, letting us appreciate the humour necessary to survive the conditions in which the men lived, while never letting us forget what was going on behind the laughter. The long scene as Buntu convinced Sizwe to assume the identity of Robert Zwelinzima was both laugh-out-loud funny and desperately bleak, as Buntu flipped between comic impersonations of police officers and exasperated screaming at Sizwe, trying to impress on him the seriousness of the situation.

The French speaking displaced the play somewhat, distancing it from its historical context. This worked effectively, however, in increasing the sense of ‘otherness’ that the world of the play evoked. This was an alien society to the audience of the play, and having it in a foreign tongue (as opposed to accented English) I think worked in its favour, emphasising how different this culture was to our own.

I came out wishing I had seen the production at the National, as I would have loved to get a different angle on the play. It would be fascinating to see it in something approaching its original context, though I have no idea how retrievable that actually is. Last night’s production, however, showed that the play is powerful in its own right, and still carries a great deal of contemporary resonance. Peter Brook is firmly restored in my good books.

June 01, 2007

Will @ Warwick #2

As promised, here’s the link to the second episode of ‘Will @ Warwick’, the first episode that has me on it.

I have to admit I haven’t managed to steel myself to listen to it yet. However, you’ll be pleased to know that it also features Lenny Henry and Barrie Rutter, so even if I’m awful I’m sure there’ll be some interesting stuff in there!


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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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