All entries for June 2008

June 27, 2008

King Lear : The Movie

Any new film version of a Shakespeare play is always welcome, but this announcement from the Guardian sounds particularly interesting:

The Oscar-winning actor Anthony Hopkins is to play King Lear in a new film version of the Shakespeare tragedy, it was confirmed today.

The film will feature Gwyneth Paltrow, Naomi Watts and Keira Knightley as Lear's three daughters, with more big names to be revealed soon, according to the director, Joshua Michael Stern.

"The one thing that I'm staying away from is stunt casting," said Stern, "so there won't be the American comedian, but there will be some really great actors playing smaller roles that will make a lot of sense."

Despite Stern's background - he's scripted episodes of Law & Order and Chicago Hope - he insists he won't be meddling with the original text. "I'm not very fond of the modern adaptations," he said. "It's pre-Roman, Celtic, very raw. It's a period in British history, from which Tolkien took a lot of his inspiration, where there were thatched-roof roundhouses and fortresses."

Stern's previous directorial efforts have been limited to a couple of comedy shorts: Queer Eye for the Homeless Guy and Jewz N The Hood, both shot in 2005.

Hopkins is said to be "thrilled" at the chance to reprise the role he played in David Hare's production of the play at the National 21 years ago in 1987.

Shooting is scheduled to begin in Britain or Ireland early next year.

Here's my analysis of the interesting things in this announcement:

  • He's "not very fond of the modern adaptations". Well, this is a viewpoint, if not one I share. Whatever his reasoning, though, I'd actually welcome a decent period-set Lear that evoked the time in which it was set, much as Roman Polanski did for Macbeth. It's a rich period, and on a cinema screen could be quite spectacular and draw out the interesting pre-Christian resonances in the text.

  • Keira Knightley as Cordelia. Bit unsure, but then I think the part is well within her range. Might give her a chance to bring out the Celtic warrior-woman armour from King Arthur again.

  • Two very attractive older sisters, which is interesting, and nice to see that they're not going for evil old hags, as it were. It'll be interesting to see how the sisters relate to one another.

  • "Really great actors playing smaller roles". One can only hope they avoid the trap that Kenneth Branagh fell into with Hamlet, which turned the film into a "Where's Wally?" game on a massive scale, with people more interested in who was playing who then what they were saying.

  • Anthony Hopkins as Lear. Enough said.

Romeo and Juliet @ Coventry Cathedral

It had to happen in a week of open-air theatre. The sun shone gloriously on Monday for Warwick Student Arts Festival's The Tempest, Shakespeare's Globe cast a cool shadow over the midday Midsummer Night's Dream audience on Tuesday and Footsbarn's tent protected the crowds on Tocil Fields from the elements on Wednesday. It couldn't last. Tonight, the heavens opened, and a severely depleted crowd sat in the ruins of Coventry Cathedral peering out from under umbrellas through what, as the night wound on, became a raging rainstorm that left us cold, wet, miserable and aching from the effort of holding onto our umbrellas. A worse night to be watching Shakespeare in the open air, barring snow or hail, would have been hard to imagine.

So, all credit to the brave troupe of actors from Shakespeare's Globe who, in the true spirit of touring, ploughed on through the downpour for two and a half hours and performed the best Romeo and Juliet I've seen to date. Using the pared-down dictates of touring to best advantage, director Elizabeth Freestone created a fast and funny production that succeeded in retaining the sodden audience to the end, which is no small testament to its achievement. Special mention goes to Dominique Ball who spent much of the second act wearing little more than a sheet yet didn't seem to shiver once.

A cast of just eight doubled the parts, making for some interesting moments; Conrad Westmaas, for example, doubled Capulet and Montague, meaning that he spoke both sets of reconciliatory words in the final scene, a neat touch visually demonstrating the combined grief of the two families. Peter, meanwhile, was shared out between most of the cast by passing around a brown apron, in one instance the actors even swapping mid-scene. The simple set (a flat square playing area with a battered '60s camper van parked at the back) was conducive to this playful approach, with the van providing the main entrance and exit points for most characters, giving the impression of a TARDIS-like space inside. Juliet made her bedroom on the van's roof, while the Nurse called for her while peeping through the curtained windows. It added nothing to the interpretation, but made for a fun and informal backdrop, and was well used for the Apothecary who became an addled traveller in a van full of drugs.

The ruins of the old cathedral in Coventry. The stage was set up at the far end, with audience on three sides around.

The play began in an appropriately informal manner, with the Prince making the usual announcement about mobile phones and paying a small tribute to the space, then walking away. Turning back, he said "Oh, and one more thing. Two households....". At the end of his prologue, the rest of the cast emerged in casual '60s costume (jeans, open shirts, light dresses and coloured bandanas/neckerchiefs to signify allegiance) and began a formation dance, which quickly descended into violence as the actors barged into each other and eventually started a full brawl. The text was effectively edited here, with snatches of shouted dialogue introducing the key characters without the long verbal build-up.

The acting was good throughout, and the actors had to work especially hard to keep up the energy, an energy not reciprocated by the audience who were generally quite unresponsive throughout, mostly from trying to prevent their umbrellas and blankets blowing away. Nonetheless, much of the production was very funny and still managed to draw laughs from frozen lips. Perri Snowdon was very amusing as Paris- he giggled like a schoolboy upon kissing Juliet in Friar Lawrence's cell, and turned up on the wedding morning strumming a ukulele and singing, only pausing to happily tell audience members "I'm getting married today!". The standout comic performance came from Nitzan Sharron's Mercutio though. Filled with a manic energy, this Mercutio wasn't dangerous or dark, stood by his friends (for instance, replacing Benvolio in a dance at the Capulets Ball on the point of Benvolio having to reveal his face) and took great pleasure in innocent mockery. He had a commanding presence, insisting on acting out his madcap monologues to the full. His death scene was particularly good; the brawl with Tybalt began with simple pushing until one of them took a harder punch than expected to the face. The jostling then began in more earnest, the two rolling on the floor while Benvolio restrained Romeo from intervening. Tybalt only drew a switchblade on the very point of re-entering the fray, stabbing quickly before putting it away and marching off quickly. This small thing was especially effective as Romeo and Benvolio genuinely had no idea what had happened, and it was only revealed gradually as Mercutio thrashed on the floor. His dying words were a mixture of angry shouts and pained squeals, he losing control over the pitch of his voice as he experience agonising pangs. Barely able to carry him, Benvolio finally escorted him off to die.

Both Dominique Bull and Marsha Henry made their theatrical debuts for this production, playing Juliet and the Nurse respectively, and both gave interesting performances. Bull was an unusually strong Juliet, both physically and emotionally, and there was a great deal of anger in her, particularly in the "Romeo, Romeo" speech where her frustration boiled up and saw her shouting at the stars. The dynamics of the Capulet household were striking, and the clear cause of this frustration. Juliet was an independently minded young woman lashing out against the restrictions placed upon her. Her father, meanwhile, bordered on the tyrannical in his organising of his daughter's life, and during the family argument he made as if to strike both wife and daughter, leaving Juliet cowering on the floor. Lady Capulet, played by Bridgitta Roy, was caught between the two people she loved. She objected strongly to the haste of the wedding, but was unable to articulate her concerns properly and was talked over by her husband, often reducing her to tears. Yet after the fight, when Juliet turned to her mother for support, she burst into tears again and stormed out, unable to take sides. This intriguing glimpse into the Capulets' home-life suggested a great deal of domestic strife, and explained Juliet's willingness to escape from her family.

While Bull's verse-speaking was occasionally not the clearest, this was nonetheless a good debut. Henry's was also solid, but here voice was the strongest point, Henry's excellent singing providing a score for moments both celebratory (a cabaret at the ball) and tragic (the discovery of Juliet's 'body'). Otherwise she gave a fine performance as the Nurse, combining a playful maternal care for Juliet with a fiery Caribbean temper that saw her fuming at Mercutio's jibes and chasing Romeo with murder in her eyes, to good comic effect.

The young lovers were poorly served by liberal editing of the final scene, which ran all of the events in the crypt together in quick succession and felt very rushed. Admittedly, this may have been the sodden actors understandably sprinting for the finish line, but either way it was a disappointing finale to the love story. Elsewhere, the leads did good work and created a largely convincing romance, particularly in their first meeting where tentative awkwardness dissolved into a passionate kiss which left them both gasping. By an extraordinary stroke of serendipity, at the exact second that their masks were lowered and their eyes met, the cathedral bells chimed out the hour. While the balcony scene dragged a little, the morning "Wilt thou be gone" scene was pacey and heartfelt, Romeo climbing down the side of the van from the roof which doubled as Juliet's bedroom. Alan Morrissey provided some good work as Romeo, matching Mercutio for energy in their shared scenes and at other times sharing his wistful casualness with the audience. His melancholy was worn fairly lightly, and he was always ready to burst into a passion of anger or love, yet restrained them with calmness.

The final image of the play saw the two lovers lying still on a table under the glow of fairy lights that extended from the van. The rest of the company removed their bandanas and wristbands, laying their colours over the pair and sheltering them from the rain with their combined family emblems. It was a nice final image, and the shared grief was affecting. By this time the rain was torrential, which fitted the mood and gave an affecting atmosphere to the scene. It's testament to the cast that they kept their audience (which unfortunately depleted during the interval) entertained and in the space until the end and, despite the elements, gave the best Romeo and Juliet I've seen to date. Considering the conditions, this was a performance all involved should be proud of.

A version of this review is available at Shakespeare Revue.

June 26, 2008

A Midsummer Night's Dream @ Tocil Field, University of Warwick

Footsbarn Theatre are a theatre troupe in the most traditional sense, touring in caravans and performing in their own 'Big Top'-style tent. Formed in Cornwall in the 1970s, though now based in France, the company is truly international, representing a wide range of performance styles, languages and visual symbols. Their current carnivalesque production of A Midsummer Night's Dream has been touring the world on and off for many years, with actors coming and going, and this year marks a long-awaited return to England.

The tent itself crammed a hugely enthusiastic audience into rows of tiered wooden benches arranged on three sides around a thrust area. A few lucky children sat in the centre of this area, while actors periodically paraded around them. The main stage area was a raised rocky platform, from which a small bridge led to a bandstand. A tree stood centrally at the back of the stage area, all made to look deliberately cartoon-like. This intimate space was used to great effect throughout a performance that relied heavily on the company's immediate relationship with the audience, particularly with the many children present.

From the start, masked figures moved about, waving at the audience and collecting toadstools and similar. These fairies, with distorted smiling masks, giggled and gurgled unintelligibly, combining images from European folklore with the aesthetics of the commedia dell'arte. Always benign, the masks gave an excellent sense of 'the other' which, combined with the actors' innovative ways of moving, some making themselves only two feet tall while others skipped about, gave the woodland scenes a tangible magic. Masks were used among the rest of the characters also - Egeus had a grotesque old-man's face, Theseus that of a bull (presumably the Minotaur), Puck a dark red devilish face with a lion's mane and the male lovers those of chickens, combined with feathery costumes. An air of wildness, of untamed activity, was created by the actors adopting the physical mannerisms of these animals, for example in Demetrius and Lysander pecking and squawking at each other as they argued.

The cast of seven doubled to great effect, the changes only becoming apparent very late on when pauses in the action were required for the actors to change. Joey Cunningham played Oberon, Theseus and Flute, Vincent Gracieux played Demetrius and Quince, Paddy Hayter combined Lysander and Bottom while Mas Soegeng juggled Puck, Snug and Egeus. The only characters to be sacrificed were Snout (whose rule was subsumed into Snug's) and Starveling, for whom the moon was silently held up by another actor. The actors spoke in their own accents, which ranged from Cunningham and Hayter's British tones to Akemi Yamauchi's often-unintelligible Japanese accent and Soegeng's deep Indonesian barks. Even when the accent overwhelmed the language, though, the action was clear and accessible, in much the way that Tim Supple's Indian Dream was. The effect was to create a Dream that felt truly global, an experience tied together by language but incorporating the voices and practices of artists from around the world.

The performances were inventive and extremely funny, often using just simple devices to draw huge laughs. My personal highlight was Muriel Piquart's Helena. Resisting the temptation to go into hysterics and horror as the men fell in love with her, Piquart instead simply stood in bemusement and looked at the audience with a pleading surprise, or sat at the edge of the stage looking into space while they waxed lyrical. Her confusion was both amusing and affecting, the woman genuinely thrown by what she was being confronted with. Her meekness contrasted nicely with Caroline Piette's brusquer and livelier Hermia. The two male lovers, meanwhile, were all comic exaggeration and nasty asides, particularly from an extremely harrassed Demetrius who was worn out by the constant attention from Helena. The two even apologised to the nearby audience members as they drew their swords on each other

Oberon and Titania were impressively realised, the one a bald and creepy man, tall and dressed in black, who lurked at the top of the tree or crept in the background of scenes. Titania, meanwhile, was a Japanese acrobat who flitted about the stage and, later, was seen dancing with ribbons. Interestingly, neither wore masks, giving them two of the most human appearances of the play. Oberon was in control throughout the play, watching events unfold with a leer and cackling as he watched Titania and Bottom playing in Titania's bed. Puck, meanwhile, was the flunky. Face completely hidden inside his mask, he bounced as he moved and was incapable of standing still. He played an instrument similar to the spoons in both his hands, using these instruments to indicate the rhythms of his words and thoughts, building to a frenzied climax as he prepared to undertake a task before running off again. More an agent than an instigator, his presence was nevertheless an active and energetic one that propelled the stage activity, and it was Puck who covered costume changes with dances in the centre of the stage.

The play was cut down to two hours with no interval, but somehow in this they managed to extend the Mechanicals' scenes, performing the casting and rehearsal scenes leisurely and adding in plenty of off-text clowning, including a memorable piece of slapstick involving a prop sword being inserted in Quince's backside. Paddy Hayter, who also directed the production, gave a magnificent performance as Bottom: chatting casually to the audience, storming off twice during rehearsals (the second time, after being denied any props, calling over his shoulder "I'm having a hissy fit!") and speaking through protruding teeth. Whole scenes in miniature were created by the four clowns, one involving a mimed scene at a door as Quince, Flute and Snug spoke loudly about Bottom, trying to persuade him to come back inside by complimenting him. However, it was the four's camararderie rather than the set-pieces that most entertained, their easy back-and-forth and groan-inducing puns (as Snug got onto the group's prop box to be given his part, Bottom encouraged him: "Opportunity Box, Snug!").

Bottom's donkey head was enormous, almost the size of the actor again, with a mouth that the actor was able to manipulate to make it sound like his words were coming directly from the head. The enormous scale kept the children entertained but also kept up the carnivalesque atmosphere, turning him into a character straight out of the Mexican "Day of the Dead", and he was paraded around the audience by the fairies who couldn't help their laughter as they looked at him. The parading was also an important part of the final scene as the nobles entered to watch Pyramus and Thisbe. The company brought in six enormous poles with masked mannequins of the six lovers mounted atop them, the poles decorated lavishly in the colours that the characters had been wearing. An abstract representation of the couples, these were paraded around the audience as confetti rained down from above to represent the wedding, before being mounted on stage to "watch" the play. The size of them, with their flowing robes and colours, meant they also served as a backdrop for the inner play, creating a stage in miniature on which the Mechanicals could perform.

Pyramus and Thisbe itself was comic, but in a very different way - an almost avuncular Quince narrated throughout in mock-tragic tones while the female actors appeared as deer and a fake stream of blue material was thrown across the stage. Combined with subdued lighting and flames lit by the actors at either side, the playlet was visually striking and atmospheric. However, low comedy was restored by Flute wearing two enormous balloons which he popped upon stabbing himself, and Bottom's Pyramus predictably milked the death for all it was worth. As the playlet drew to its close, though, the Mechanicals gradually slowed down and were joined by the Fairies, themselves transforming back into their spirit characters, and the seven moved about the stage in a slow dance, Oberon and Titania blessing the house in a beautiful dance again reminiscent of Supple's production but with a very different quality.

This production was beautiful, an entirely unpretentious and thoroughly accessible Dream that continually innovated while still respecting the traditions on which they were drawing. The fantastic performances, juggling farce with more sophisticated comedy, were greeted with repeated encores from the audience until the cast finally announced that they were heading to the bar. A promise that Footsbarn would return soon met with another ovation, and one only hopes that they are as good as their word.

This review originally appeared at Shakespeare Revue.

June 25, 2008

A Midsummer Night's Dream @ Shakespeare's Globe

It's quite frustrating, on an afternoon when you know you're going to have to leave a performance five minutes early, when the show begins with a five minute drum duet between two competing musicians. However, this was very much my fault rather than the Globe's - I had squeezed this production in immediately before a seminar in London, and can hardly expect the Globe to edit a production down purely for my benefit!

I'm surprised to look at the Globe's site and see that they have only produced one in-house Dream there so far (though Northern Broadsides performed their version in the space in the first season). Considering the sheer amount of Dreams every year, and the fact the Globe is an ideal environment for what I always consider to be Shakespeare's most family-friendly play, I'm surprised it's not part of every other season. Jonathan Munby's new production is a reminder of how successful the play can be, keeping an audience largely made up of school and tourist groups thoroughly entertained.

A floating moon-balloon hung over the audience, largely unnoticed in the afternoon light (though pictures of evening productions suggest it illuminates at night). The playing area was a large blue circle lying on the stage, with walkways that extended to the on-stage entrances and curved down into the audience. Athens itself, this colour aside, was dressed in an austere black, matched in the formal costumes of the nobles and lovers. The formal severity of the place was echoed in Theseus and Hippolyta's slow opening dance. Upon the introduction of the lovers, the mood stayed sombre, Egeus casting Hermia to the floor and Theseus making his decrees with a voice that brooked no disobedience - Hermia's apology when saying she didn't know what had made her bold was delivered quickly, in something approaching genuine fear. This was repeated later as Philostrate laughed off Theseus' ignorance in wanting to see Pyramus and Thisbe, which quickly became grovelling as he realised he had overstepped his boundaries.

Upon removal to the forest, though, colour was introduced into this dark environment. A blue drape was thrown down to completely cover the back wall, while the fairies, dressed in purples and blues with tattered skirts and laddered tights, jumped out from trapdoors and planted pink flowers around the stage. The lovers found themselves gradually 'coloured in' too, as their black tunics and outer-dresses were removed during the play to reveal bright yellows and greens, each matched in colour with their ultimate partner for the audience's benefit. The lovers were strong throughout, performing their roles entirely adequately though with no hugely revolutionary readings. Christopher Brandon and Oliver Boot as Lysander and Demetrius were entertainingly OTT as the effects of the love-in-idleness turned them into melodramatic poetry-reciters, while Pippa Nixon and Laura Rogers as their respective beauxs became shriller and shriller as the afternoon wore on, eventually launching themselves at each other in a markedly undignified manner, Hermia having to be restrained in midair as she flew at Helena. The two girls also brought out some nice moments referring back to their shared childhood, the two sitting together at the front of the stage in an attempt to arrest the spiralling confusion, Helena pulling Hermia's head forcefully onto her lap as she relived the past.

Tom Mannion and Siobhan Redmond, doubling Theseus/Oberon and Hippolyta/Titania, made a simple change from English accents to Scottish to distinguish their characters as well as adopting the purple/blue of the rest of the fairies. Mannion had good presence, and was a surprisingly docile Oberon, listening to Titania's defiance quietly and calmly, standing still at a distance, and only moving centrally after she had left. He was almost avuncular with the audience, quietly saying "I am invisible" as if in explanation. Even in his rage against Puck he was quite ready to admit the vagueness of his own instructions. Michael Jibson's Puck (doubled with Philostrate) was also perfectly fine, entering via the roof on a rope but thereafter constantly squirming at pangs in his back that luckily prevented him from having to fly over the audience. This Puck was playful but measured, steering well clear of manicness. The Indian Boy was also on-stage for much of the first act, always sticking close to Titania. After Hippolyta became infatuated with Bottom, though, she placed him on her flowery bed and made to follow him offstage. The Boy ran up to her and plucked at her arm, at which she turned on him and pushed him away, leaving him alone on-stage. His running off in the opposite direction closed the first act.

There was good work among the Mechanicals. Paul Hunter's Bottom was of the likeable-yokel variety, with strong cockney accent and a comically exaggerated manner when 'acting'. His transformation, complete with long teeth, fuzzy chest hair, tail and long ears, was quite effective, and he pranced rather than walked. His eeyoring became a constant irritation to the fairies, who stood around him visibly unimpressed at their charge to attend on him, and even Hippolyta eventually had to gag him. His repeated rubbing of his crotch in the second act, coupled with Hippolyta's more than satisfied sighs and reclining in her bed, left little to the imagination. Peter Bankole played Flute-as-Thisbe with an impressively high-pitched voice, but more interest was to be found in Flute's own revelations as he played a woman. Sharing a stage-kiss with 'Pyramus' (to the predicted "eurghs" from the school groups), he was clearly taken with the experience, smiling simperingly after Bottom. Later, as the players waited for news, he sat sobbing in centre-stage, distraught by Bottom's disappearance. It was comic but also an interesting reading and it would have been nice to see that developed a bit further.

There were plenty of fun moments of visual comedy. Lysander always fell asleep with head turned away from the audience which allowed Puck to pull out two fake eyeballs on long elastic from Lysander's 'head', to suitable grotesque effect. The Mechanicals were always entertaining, and one fantastic moment saw them all freeze in very comic positions as they fled from Bottom. The final performance of Pyramus and Thisbe was plenty of fun too, though there were a surprising amount of borrowings from Greg Doran's RSC production, including having the chink in the Wall being between Snout's legs, forcing Pyramus and Thisbe to kiss crotch and buttocks instead of each other (making Flute's line about "I kiss the hole" especially amusing). Pyramus' death abandoned all reason and saw the actor 'chopping off' all his fingers, toes, crotch, tongue (replacing it when he needed to speak) and finally throwing himself into a heap on the stage to great applause. Quince's repeated squirming and horror as the cast members variously patronised the Duke (Bottom), threw a hissy fit and stormed off (Starveling) or revealed their skin tight leggings (himself) were good fun too.

As the play returned to Athens, the fairies collected up all the flowers and then, in a lovely move, pulled down the blue drape that covered the black wall and carried it out through the auditorium, it covering the audience in a sea of blue material that took some moments to pass over everyone's heads. It was a reminder of the power of the Globe to incorporate its audience into the action in a way other theatres just can't do.

The production was perfectly servicable, though I confess to feeling somewhat disappointed. It was a very straight reading of the play, with very few genuinely original ideas or interpretations - it basically felt as if it had been put on for the sake of putting on a solid Dream, which is of course completely valid, but it would have been nice to have a few more moments of interest. However, the performances and direction were good across the board, and the audience screamed with delight at every joke, so in those terms it was certainly a success. Oh, and if anyone can tell me what happened in the play's closing moments (after Oberon started singing in Theseus' house) I'd be very interested to know what I missed!

June 24, 2008

The Tempest @ University of Warwick Piazza

This pared-down version of The Tempest was the first of two Shakespeare production in the 2008 Warwick Student Arts Festival. Its novel setting, in the mock classical amphitheatre of the University of Warwick's Piazza, combined with a sunny Monday afternoon to create a festive atmosphere for what was essentially an exhibition piece, Shakespeare for Shakespeare's sake. Rather than providing a detailed interpretation, thematic exploration or innovative textual reading (which would have been difficult, given the production's hour-and-a-half slot), director Simon Ferdinand presented a version retaining less than a third of the text that collated highlights of the play and married them to visual and aural images, wisely making it simple and accessible for the casual audience eating ice-cream on the piazza steps. It took place in the central floor space, with a simple set consisting of a couple of upturned log stumps.

The Piazza at the University of Warwick
Source: University of Warwick website

One of the primary pleasures of this production was the music, directed by Tanya Wells. The eight musicians sat in a semi-circle behind the actors, playing djembe-style drums and singing to accompany the action. The sophistication of the harmonies was surprising, considering that the performance was a one-off, and there were some lovely moments such as the wedding of Miranda and Ferdinand that showcased their talents, walking among the actors and creating a blanket of sound that was simply lovely. Melodies were created to accompany most of the primary characters, drumming for the tempest itself and a conch was periodically blown at formal points of procession.

The main innovation of the production was the casting of four girls as Ariel, dressed and made up in four distinct colour schemes to represent the four elements. This allowed the Ariels to create many of the effects as a group - waving a sheet up and down for the stormy sea, escorting the nobles off in different directions, moving around the stage behind Trinculo to whisper things and, in one excellent moment, walking around Prospero as he abjured his rough magic with old books, tearing out pages and dropping them to the floor until the piazza became full of torn pages blowing in the wind at the actors' feet. Playing up to the elemental nature of Ariel also made for nice moments such as the "Fire" Ariel speaking the line "The fire and cracks of sulphurous roaring" with a smile and nod to her own colouring, and of course Prospero's release of the quartet to the elements.

Prospero himself, played by Paul Edkins, looked uncannily like Jesus with beard, long hair, white toga and long staff. His performance was formal and upright, the actor using his height to full advantage. This Prospero stood aloof from the rest of the activity, supremely confident in his strength and of the outcomes, and cutting reduced his part primarily to well-spoken orations. The other nobles also wore togas and sandals, but had almost nothing to do. Sebastian was entirely cut, as was the conspiracy subplot. After the tempest they were led off blindfolded and were not seen again until almost the end of the play where their scenes were conflated into one, with only a snippet of Gonzalo's utopia speech and part of Alonso's mourning left in. More space was given to Ferdinand and Miranda's romance, which was played largely straight.

In the same way, Trinculo and Stephano were reduced to a single scene. Zoe 'Bob' Roberts gave a commendable bit of energy as the drunken Stephano, retching into audience members' laps and indulging in fantasies of ruling with comic blokishness. Lydia Rynne, meanwhile, in dirty brown smock and muddy face, was a despairing and beaten Caliban who railed against Prospero bitterly while remaining largely sympathetic. With the clowns, she became a staggering drunk, yet there was still sadness as she chanted her name. In a shock move, though, the next we heard of the conspiracy was when the Ariels entered with bloody bags with their heads in, one throwing Caliban's down from the top of the piazza steps to land at Prospero's feet. It was an effective moment, though entirely out of keeping with what had come before, showing Prospero to be shockingly harsh when everywhere else he was apparently benign. Prospero's next line, "Now does my project gather to a head", suggested that this decision may have been taken in order to effect a particularly bad pun.

At just over an hour long, this production was in essence, and in the best possible sense, pointless, a pleasant way to pass a fraction of an afternoon without being challenged or required to do much thinking. However, it wasn't a production to be casually dismissed, being considerably better developed than one would have expected such an abbreviated piece to be. Many of the images were striking, and combined with the music there was much to take away from the performance, and it would be lovely to see this developed into a full production.

June 17, 2008

The Dell – Summer 2008

In the interests of supporting both the RSC and a whole range of young theatre companies, I thought I would publish the (currently correct) schedule for the Dell Theatre up here. I haven't seen it published anywhere yet, so hopefully this will give people an idea of what's going on!

The Dell is an open-air space where the CAPITAL Centre premiered our production of de Vega's Capulets and Montagues. It's a fun environment, obviously amateur but ideal for a summer afternoon's mooching in Stratford.

Sat 28th June

11am            The Pantaloons                                 The Taming of the Shrew (1hr 50mins)

3pm               Full Tilt                                              The Comedy of Errors (1hr 30mins)

6pm               The Pantaloons                                 The Taming of the Shrew (1hr 50mins)

Sun 29th June

10.30am         Leamington Spa Stagecoach            Romeo & Juliet (40mins)

11.30am         The Pantaloons                                  The Taming of the Shrew (1hr 50mins)

3pm               Bristol University                               Love’s Labour’s Lost

6pm               Bristol University                               Love’s Labour’s Lost

Sat 5th July

3pm               Vanguard Theatre                             Pericles (2hrs)

6pm               Centralised                                        Blind Love (1hr 15mins)

Sun 6th July

11am             Vanguard Theatre                             Pericles (2hrs)

3pm               Centralised                                        Blind Love (1hr 15mins)

6pm               Vanguard Theatre                             Pericles (2hrs)

Sat 12th July

11am             Yarborough School                           A Midsummer Night’s Dream

3pm               Spongecake Theatre                        As You Like It (50 mins)

6pm               Spongecake Theatre                        As You Like It (50mins)

Sun 13th July

11am            Spongecake Theatre                        As You Like It (50mins)

3pm               Yarborough School                            A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Sat 19th July

11am            No Pigeons Theatre                          Taming of the Shrew (1hr 30mins)

3pm               BMH Productions                              Macbeth (1hr 25mins)

6pm               No Pigeons Theatre                          Taming of the Shrew (1hr 30mins)

Sun 20th July

11am             BMH Productions                              Macbeth (1hr 25mins)

3pm               No Pigeons Theatre                          Taming of the Shrew (1hr 30mins)

6pm               BMH Productions                              Macbeth (1hr 25mins)

Sat 26th July

3pm               Gloucestershire Young Players         Twelfth Night (2hrs 30mins)

Sun 27th July

11am             Gloucestershire Young Players         Twelfth Night (2hrs 30mins)

3pm               Oxford University Drama Society      Romeo & Juliet

Sat 2nd Aug

3pm               Gloucestershire Young Shakespeare Theatre          The Tempest

Sun 3rd Aug

3pm               Gloucestershire Young Shakespeare Theatre          The Tempest

Sat 9th Aug

3pm               Hammerpuzzle Theatre Co               Measure For Measure (1hr 30mins)

6pm                Hammerpuzzle Theatre Co               Measure For Measure (1hr 30mins)

Sun 10th Aug

11am              Downe House School                        Romeo & Juliet (max 2hrs)   

3pm               Hammerpuzzle Theatre Co               Measure For Measure (1hr 30mins)

6pm                Downe House School                        Romeo & Juliet Juliet (max 2hrs)

Sat 16th Aug

3pm               Shooting Stars Theatre Co                Romeo & Juliet

6pm               Shooting Stars Theatre Co                Romeo & Juliet

Sun 17th Aug

3pm               Shooting Stars Theatre Co                Romeo & Juliet

Sat 23rd Aug

3pm               BMH Productions                               Merchant of Venice (1hr 25mins)

6pm               Vox Humana Theatre Co                   Coriolanus (1hr 30mins)

Sun 24th Aug

11am             BMH Productions                               Merchant of Venice (1hr 25mins)

3pm               Vox Humana Theatre Co                   Coriolanus (1hr 30mins)

June 16, 2008

Coming Up

It's been a calm couple of weeks (despite the Middleton binge) on the theatregoing front, but I'll be making up for this with quite a bit of activity in the next couple of weeks, both theatrical and academic.

This week starts calmly but promisingly, with Warwick University Drama Society's fascinating-sounding production of Macbeth on Wednesday night. I'm then off to the British Graduate Shakespeare Conferencein Stratford for three days where I'll be indulging my academic side. I was originally going to be presenting a paper on the RSC Histories Cycle, but time and other committments meant I had to withdraw. I'm still looking forward to auditing though, there are some very interesting papers and speakers this year. Most of the conference will be taking the opportunity to catch the RSC's The Taming of the Shrew, but I'm instead going to be surprisingly untheatrical and see Thea Gilmore at Cox's Yard.

Back to the Shakespeare, next week sees the start of the Warwick Student Arts Festival at the University of Warwick. At the time of writing the programme isn't available, but by all accounts there should be a fantastic range of stuff. I'll hopefully make it to an open-air The Tempest on Monday and a late night promenade production of A Midsummer Night's Dream on Tuesday - which is, of course, Midsummer's Eve.

If all goes well, I'll be seeing three Dreams in two days. On Tuesday I'm in London for a lecture at the London Forum for Authorship Studies that's relevant to my PhD, and with a following wind I'm hoping to catch the Globe's matinee of their well-received Dream beforehand. Having dashed back up to Warwick for the student production, I'm then seeing Footsbarn's carnivalesque production the next day. I suppose it's that time of year, but apologies in advance if I'm somewhat incoherent about what happened in each one.....

July should be quiet - as I'm in the US for half of the month, I've only got one UK trip planned which is to the Young Rep's Henry VI Part III: The Chaos, a very rare stand-alone production of a single part of the trilogy. However, I've got plenty of things to book for: as well as the RSC's new Tempest, there are some recently-announced productions I'm particularly looking forward to booking for:

  • Nos do Morro bringing their Two Gentlemen of Verona to the Barbican (it premiering in 2006 at the Courtyard).
  • Complicite returning to the Barbican with the apparently-excellent A Disappearing Number which I missed first time around.
  • Lastly at the Barbican, the Mark Morris Dance Group and London Symphony Orchestra joining forces on what sounds like a spectacular variant on Romeo and Juliet.
  • The Everyman's King Lear, directed by Rupert Goold and with Pete Postlethwaite in the title role.

All for now!

June 12, 2008

The Revenger's Tragedy @ The Royal Exchange

There are advantages and disadvantages to seeing two productions of the same play in close proximity to each other. The main advantage, to my mind, is the opportunity to see multiple interpretations of the same text and thereby learn more about the actual text itself, to see through the reading of an individual director to the core of what they're working on. The disadvantage - and I do consider it a disadvantage - is the inevitable comparison between the productions. I found this particularly at yesterday's performance of the Royal Exchange's Revengers' Tragedy; with the National's superior production still fresh in my mind, I was perhaps more disappointed than the production itself merited.

Jonathan Moore's in-the-round production modernised the play in a fairly generic way, seemingly primarily in order to turn the Duchess' sons into ASBO-inflicted hoodies. The modern setting did provide a couple of interesting readings, though, chiefly in the idea of Vindice's mother as an Irish immigrant, giving her family an outsider status in the world of the play. Otherwise, it provided an excuse for loud music and comic reimaginings of scenes, such as Lussurioso's attack on the Duke taking place in a shower rather than a bedroom (with all the nudity that implies).

The main problem with the modernising was that it felt rather underdone. It might have been the fault of the matinee, but the energy was sorely lacking in the first scenes, most embarrasingly in the early dance that Vindice paused to address his enemies. The music and dancing had the enthusiasm and cool factor of a family wedding, with everyone just shuffling back and forth a bit. Paradoxically, though, the reverse was true of Merryn Owen and Sam Fletcher as the Duchess' elder two sons, who were commendably energetic throughout in their abusive gestures, teenage gyrating and energetic bouncing. While often funny, in the close quarters of the Exchange it sometimes felt far more than necessary to achieve the effect. Nevertheless, the pace provided by these two was very welcome.

Central to the production was Stephen Tompkinson's Vindice, and he impressed throughout. A religious man, this Vindice spent a great deal of time on his knees, whether to receive his mother's blessings, pray for vengeance or show his feigned humility. A very sober figure in his own guise, his disguise as Piato was particularly effective, donning a ruffed cloak, tiny sunglasses, cane and crazy haircut to look like a demonic schoolmaster. Speaking with a nasally (and somewhat camp) voice, he acted as a master of ceremonies as he manipulated the rest of the court, most spectacularly realised as he literally stage-managed the Duke's 'date', swirling his cane around the floor to entice streams of dry ice, cuing garish lighting and music with nods to the technical box and standing centrally smiling monstrously. Tompkinson also provided much of the production's humour. In one memorable moment, he and Damian O'Hare's solid Hippolito carried on the dead body of the Duke to the strains of The Sun Has Got His Hat On, dancing diabolically with the corpse in an impressive piece of choreography (and of playing dead from Robert Demeger). Increasingly, too, the two brothers took control over the play's stage management as their power increased, cuing more and more of the effects. In a lovely final moment, John Gillett's Antonio clicked his fingers for the lights to black out, thereby demonstrating the power shift.

Music throughout was used to comic effect, such as having Julie Walters singing My Favourite Things as the Duchess' youngest son had his neck snapped, and Castiza entering in sluttish costume singing Amy Winehouse's Rehab as she pretended to leave for Lussurioso's palace. However, these moments of music didn't feel integrated enough into what was happening, which was particularly frustrating in those moments where music was used to create an atmosphere (such as a dance), but was then abruptly cut off for the dialogue to begin. The comedy also often didn't feel embedded in the characters or plot, some moments feeling a little tacked-on for cheap laughs. One undeniably amusing moment saw a renaissance clown join the stage to begin his scene with Castiza, only for the stage manager to enter and remind him before the audience that he had been cut, at which he protested before sulking off stage. Amusing, but needlessly fussy.

One of the strongest performers was Jonathan Keeble as Lussurioso. Despite an unusual bouncing gait, this was a surprisingly old and mature Lussurioso, an entirely different breed to his stepbrothers. He reclined in an armchair decorated like a globe (another free-standing globe next to him contained his whisky), and was seen exclusively in smart suit or formal dressing gown. Far from a childish libertine, he was more an upper-class socialite with some unusual tastes. His homoerotic relationship with Sordido was hinted at through looks and made more explicit with a prolonged kiss upon his release from prison, and as a result his pursuit of Castiza seemed to be less important, a triviality if not in fact a cover for appearance's sake. Yet, despite his good breeding and civil voice, there was an undeniable sadistic streak to him, that saw him arrive at his youngest stepbrother's execution and watch it with a drink in his hand. Moments like this prevented him ever becoming sympathetic, but this was a complex and interesting performance. Of less interest was Stephen Hudson's Spurio, the bastard, who was played whinily and with an irritating conscience at his incestuous relationship with the Duchess. While the text suggests a confident and somewhat manipulative figure, this Spurio was insecure and foolish, and Corinna Powlesland's Duchess played easily on him.

There was plenty of good in this production, which felt undermined by what appeared to be a lack of committment. There were moments of comedy, moments of gore (most fun was the gradual falling out of the Duke's teeth after being poisoned, they dropping noisily onto the floor) and moments of emotion, but everything in the play felt like a moment rather than part of an overall vision. When it was trying to be loud or fast it simply wasn't loud or fast enough, when it tried to be in-yer-face it didn't try hard enough and when it wanted laughs it had to deviate from established moods. While the second act was considerably better realised, the production never really worked out what it wanted to be. A fine enough production for those who can't reach London, and lots to enjoy, but if you've got the option and you only want to see one Revenger's Tragedy this year, I'd have to send you to the National.

June 09, 2008

Antony Sher and John Kani in The Tempest

Hugely exciting press release from the RSC today!

For those who don't have time to follow links, the RSC are collaborating with the Baxter Theatre company on a new production of The Tempest starring Anthony Sher as Prospero and John Kani as Caliban. It's opening at the Baxter's home in South Africa then transferring to the Courtyard in February.

The mind boggles, but even for the chance to see two legendary actors it should be interesting.

June 04, 2008

The Revenger's Tragedy @ The National Theatre

The 2008 Middleton Renaissance is underway with two new productions of The Revenger's Tragedy opening simultaneously at opposite ends of the country. The professional critics saw the Manchester production first, but I'm working the other way round, last night catching the National's new interpretation.

The National went to great lengths to emphasise and jazz up Middleton's image. A pre-show platform talk by Gary Taylor, editor of the new Oxford Middleton, spent 45 minutes explaining why Middleton is at least as good as Shakespeare. Meanwhile, for the production itself, they had hired several dancer/performers from one of the most fashionable productions of the last twelve months, Punch Drunk's The Masque of the Red Death, as well as DJ duo differentGear to provide a live soundtrack. It sounded somewhat like the institution trying to get down with the kids, but in fact was superbly executed, fusing modern and traditional styles to produce an original and spectacular show.

An explosion of deafening noise began the production, its suddenness drawing shrieks from the audience. On stage, Ti Green and Melly Still's three part set revolved. One part, a simply furnished room, filled with books and dominated by Caravaggio's St Jerome Writing, represented Vindice's home. Another, with plastic red furniture and ceiling-high Bacchic murals, and a third more austere and formal space, made up the remainder of the set. As the set revolved to deafening house beats, a manic orgy began to celebrate the Duke and Duchess's 1-year anniversary. Near-naked revellers gyrated, masked dancers turned cartwheels, the Duchess's sons hid in corridors between the different sets and copulated graphically with the animalistic partygoers. In one room, with others standing guard, Antonio's wife was raped in full view of the audience by the Duchess's youngest son. Throughout all this, whenever the stage completed a full rotation, Vindice could be seen glowering in an armchair, in shadowed solitude, while the Duke and Duchess joined their party. It was an audacious and powerful opening that, in one long dumbshow, established the key players, the most important crimes and the hedonistic atmosphere of the place. Played in modern dress, this was a court modelled on that created by Julie Taymor in her Titus, a debauched S&M fantasyland of overprivileged, morally-bankrupt pretty young things.

The modern setting complemented Middleton's very modern writing, which was most apparent in Rory Kinnear's central outstanding performance as Vindice. Beginning with straggly hair and beard, then shaving both and adopting a Cockney geezer accent to become the sleazy lackey Piato, Kinnear dominated the play throughout. Crucially, he expertly balanced the role's deadpan comedy with the sober and committed drive to revenge. Both sides came out to great effect in his relationship with the skull of his dead fiance, Gloriana, kept in a chest in his room. Speaking to it in his first scene, we saw his near-mad fascination with death and retribution, yet visually the scene remained amusing. In the trick later played on the Duke - where he attached the skull to the head of a dress and manipulated her as a life-size puppet - Kinnear extended this to even more disturbing effect, dancing with his dead lover and using her as a ventiloquist's dummy to speak to his brother. Playing this for laughs, yet not allowing the basic sickness and insanity of his actions to be overshadowed, Kinnear's Vindice was complex and thoroughly compelling.

His continued transformation, from Piato to an exaggeratedly melancholic and thuggish version of himself, and then finally to rabble-rousing revolutionary in the final movement, excited throughout and gave the play a clear human heart. His vindictiveness wasn't always sympathetic, particularly his bloodlust during the actual killings, but the focussed and good-humoured approach kept the audience on side. This worked particularly well in contrast to Jamie Parker's suited Hippolito, a basically good but far less independent character than his brother. Hippolito drew less sympathy as he followed his brother unquestioningly, laughed manically during the murders and seemed to understand far less of what he was doing. This was brought out brilliantly at the end, as Antonio ordered the deaths of the two brothers. Hippolito struggled and cried out, while Vindice calmly knelt and accepted his death as if he'd known all along it would come to this. His understanding from the start of the journey he had embarked upon compared favourably to his easily-influenced brother.

The balance between comedy and tragedy in the rest of the play was well-handled, if biased more towards the comedy. Chief among the more amusing performances were John Heffernan's Supervacuo and Tom Andrews' Ambitioso, the Duchess's twittish sons whose scheming was continually thwarted. Heffernan in particular excelled, exaggerating his character's toffish arrogance and spending much of his time downstage playing directly out to the audience. Blacker comedy was found in the younger brother, a pair of brief appearances by Tommy Luther, whose frank admission to Lady Antonio's rape was disarmingly amusing while also shocking in its brazenness.

Lussurioso, the Duke's heir, was similarly unpleasant but in a very different way. At the start he was a lazy, slightly stupid and thoroughly lecherous playboy, his designs on Castiza comically lustful. As the play progressed, though, his character developed into one both more dangerous and, in many ways, more noble. As he progressed from seeking women to ordering murders he found himself growing up, and while indulgent to the end his ambition became keener. By the time of his crowning, he had assumed an almost regal dignity, albeit one he wasn't able to enjoy for long.Ken Bones was strong as the evil Duke, particularly in his final scenes as he flirted with the skeleton and was then set upon by the two brothers, writhing in their arms as the poison took hold, and Billy Carter also stood out as Thurio, clad in black and moving slowly and secretively around the stage. His was the most unambiguously dark of the performances, an older and maturer kind of villain whose indulgences (with the Duchess) were carefully planned rather than spontaneous, and his acute observations gave him a sense of threat throughout. His quick death was something of a shame, as one felt early on that he would rise to greater prominence.

The play's stunning dumbshows, such as the opening described above, were the theatrical equivalent of movie montages. The spinning stage, with its nooks and hidden corridors between sets, created a world in which this black comedy and bloody violence could be realised. The chorus of dancers could often be seen in the distance through the translucent screens using collars and other sexual toys as they revelled. The Duke's murder, Vindice and Hippolito following him through the corridors, was a perfect example of this. The Duchess and Spurio (the Duke's bastard son) were seen having rough sex in corners while the Duke, increasingly bloodied as the brothers took their knives to him again and again, stumbled through the party, watched by the ghostly onlookers in a surreal horror-fantasy that took on nightmarish aspects and ended in a pool of blood as the frenzied murderers tore his chest to pieces. The attention to detail was fantastic - Gloriana's skeletal body was left lying in one room, and by the time the stage had completed a full rotation it had been replaced by a 'real' Gloriana, who smiled at Vindice in congratulation of his act before floating quietly away. These dumb shows occasionally bordered on the unnecessary in their insistence on tying up almost every loose end (for example, a silent scene at the end in which Antonio visited Gratiana and Castiza, they bursting into tears at his words), but were effective in fleshing out the small but complicated world in which the play took place.

The music must be mentioned also. As well as differentGear's conjuration of a nightclub mood from the DJ booth, Adrian Sutton's full-blooded score was instrumental in creating the hedonistic atmosphere. A violin player and male counter-tenor (his voice was unbelievable) even joined the revellers in early scenes, adding both visually and aurally to the action while the dancers surrounded them. Later, as the Duke was murdered, the violist appeared again, now following the staggering Duke and accompanying him in a fiendlike way. The instrumentalists merged seamlessly into the DJ's rhythms, and it would be a real shame if the soundtrack isn't made available for purchase.

There were messier moments. Some of the dramatic moments of rushing about, such as in Lussurio's midnight attack on the Duke's bed, were muddy and confused, and the final slaughter at the masque was disappointing. The masque itself, introduced by a beautiful solo dance and followed by a visually arresting display of acrobatics by masked men, was beautiful, but then the melee of slaughter between the various brothers was carried out disappointingly quickly before the audience even had time to register who was who. The production is still in preview though, and these things will hopefully be ironed out. Yet the final image of the stage littered in bodies, Antonio and his nameless lackeys standing over them while a projected skull dominated the scenery, was a powerful and sobering one. Ultimately, though, the lights went down on an empty throne, a quiet and barren reminder of the destruction that had occurred. While the audience may have been laughing throughout, the play still carried the weight of a true tragedy. Director Melly Still is a talent to watch.

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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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