All entries for June 2009

June 25, 2009

Curtain calls or credits? Phedre (NT Live) @ Warwick Arts Centre

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I caught the National's Phedre last night - or, at least, an aspect of it. For this was the launch of the National's NT Live Project, which saw a live performance screened simultaneously on over 200 screens around the world. I caught it at Warwick Arts Centre, which added a further level of interest as it was being screened in their main theatre rather than their cinema, further confusing the sense of what we were watching - live show or film, or both?

I'm not going to talk about the production, in keeping with my English-Renaissance-dramatists-only policy, but I want to talk about the event, the framing within which this performance took place.

Phedre publicity art
Phedre publicity art

Firstly, it was rather more successful technically than I had expected. A couple of sound glitches, the occasional quick re-focus of the camera and some awkward screen compositions aside, the live recording team did an extremely good job of catching the production. Zooms, close-ups and intelligent cutting kept the action of the frame moving quickly and created some interesting moments unavailable to the theatre-goer: for example, Aricia and Hippolytus failed to see Theseus enter as they kissed, and the close-up on them meant we shared their surprise as they suddenly broke away to see him standing there.

However, is this what we actually want from theatre? For a broadcast, there has to be creative use of camera angles, for a fixed-camera perspective is near-unwatchable (ask anyone who's used the archives). Some argue that that replicates the experience of watching from a fixed seat in the auditorium, but this isn't the case. The live space has a depth of field and focus that allows the audience member to move their head, look on different aspects of the space; translating that to two dimensions on a screen narrows and flattens the perspective, fixing the viewer in an unnatural and unhelpful way.

By removing the viewer's ability to choose what they watch, and to have the overarching view of the whole stage, the experience is necessarily narrowed. We are put in the hands of the camera operator and editor; our experience is channelled through an intermediary. We see what they want us to see. This is true of film; but, this being a live broadcast, the production was necessarily limited in its ability to present us with exactly what they wanted to see: mistakes, errors and unexpected movements meant that the editorial team were able to present us not with exactly what they wanted us to see, but with the best that they were able to.

This was shown quite clearly in a troubling interview with Nicholas Hytner screened before the broadcast. In the same breath he told us that the cameras would merely be observers, therefore allowing the experience for cinema viewers to be the same as for the live audience. At the same time, he told us that the cameras would be aiming to pick out those aspects which they expected an audience would be focussing on at any given point. This shows a breathtaking arrogance in the director, assuming that he is far enough aware of the audience's interest that the experience can be accordingly mediated for them. At its most basic, this ignores the fact that the audience watch multiple aspects of the production at the same time; and to narrow that field of view obscures much of what makes up the live audience member's experience. More problematically, it assumes that we want to watch the speaker rather than the on-stage reaction to the speaker's words. Too often during the performance, we were bound to watch whoever was speaking when what may have been more interesting would have been to track the reaction of the person being spoken to. Nicholas Hytner may not think that that's of interest; and perhaps it wasn't, but as an audience member I need to be able to make that choice for myself.

In this sense, then, the production was too narrowly focussed to be any reflection of the theatrical experience; but not controlled enough to take advantage of the directorial control that film allows. What we were left with was something in between, which gave a sense of the production but nothing more.

There were other issues, most problematically one of social divide and mediation. The screening was prefaced with over half an hour of introductory material from Nicholas Hytner and Jeremy Irons (who, incidentally, apparently seemed to wish he was anywhere else). Firstly, this was an aspect of the cinema experience which we could have quite happily done without: the 'trailers' were longer than at the Odeon!

Secondly, I was troubled at the content of what we were given. The discussion about the nature of the NT Live experiment was welcome and useful. However, we were then subjected to several minutes of interviews with cast and creatives, discussion of directorial and design decisions and snippets of rehearsal photography and audio footage. This was, of course, only for the screen audience's benefit, and I felt it was patronising and ill-advised. The imputation appeared to be that the provincial and international audience required elements of the production (including the back-story of the play) to be explained for them before they were allowed to see the performance itself, directing the viewer's thoughts before the curtain rose. Some people justify this as being similar to reading a programme beforehand, but this is emphatically not the case. The programme allows the viewer choice: they can read about the production beforehand, or they can put it to one side. The cinema screening forced contextual information onto the viewer as a requirement of and prelude to viewing. Intentionally or no, it was implied that the live London audience didn't need this, while we viewing elsewhere did. It also did the production a disservice, directing audiences towards a shared understanding of the production's intentions that negated the need for the audience to stretch themselves in the same way as a live audience.

Thirdly, we were required to watch for half an hour as the suited London audience seated themselves in the auditorium. The presence of a live audience offered nothing for the cinema audiences: they were invisible and inaudible for the entire production, an absent presence. To watch them at the start, therefore, seemed only to work to position exactly where the cinema audience weren't: we were present yet excluded; unacknowledged by the sharers in the live experience at all times. The on-screen crowd were the privileged spectators; as Hytner pointed out at the start, the actors would be performing entirely for their benefit in order to preserve the live experience. In essence, then, the international audience were immediately excluded from the 'real' experience: live audience were unaware of us, actors were actively ignoring us. We were voyeurs, not participants, and the fact that the live audience were given prominence at the start (we were watching them) reinforced the respective statuses of the various groups in this enterprise.

This became more troublesome in terms of the actual acting; for live performances do not all translate well to screen. In particular, Stanley Townsend's Theseus looked stilted and uncomfortable in extreme close-up, his movements stiff and awkward in a way that may well have looked quite commanding from the stalls, but from a foot away seemed oddly artificial. More upsettingly, John Shrapnel's excellently performed description of Hippolytus' death, with every nuance of the speech acted with frenzied gusto, actually turned out quite funny in close-up, and I was torn between deep feeling at the character's despair and laughter at the ridiculousness of the mediated image. By contrast, Dominic Cooper seemed to be playing far more for the cameras than the other actors, playing much of his response to other speakers through subtleties of expression and eye movement, which the camera picked up gloriously: yet I have no idea if the live audience would have noticed this.

Lastly for now (though I particularly hope this debate continues) was the matter of the ending, for which I turned my attention to specifically look at what the audience at Warwick did. The London audience began clapping long before our audience did, and the response was distinctly divided. Most people seemed to want to applaud, but a substantial portion simply got up and left. However, it became far more interesting as the curtain calls continued: for, it being a live performance, the curtain calls were long and conducted in multiple parts: individual bows, curtains rising and falling, etc. The applause at Warwick died down extremely quickly, while the London applause simply got ever greater. Some brave souls in our auditorium continued clapping extremely hard, and I had to wonder exactly why: were they genuinely carried away by enthusiasm for the production, or were they simply doing it because they thought they were meant to?

The problem was one of dissociation from the performance. What, exactly, is the nature of applause? It acts as a release of tension, as a means of congratulation and as a reaffirming of the shared experience of performance. The camera and cinema screen, however, acted as a divide which confused the issue enormously. The actors had not been acting for us- they had, explicitly, been acting for the crowd in the Lyttleton. Equally, our responses had been invisible to the cast, and continued to be: we had not in any way contributed to the live experience of the performance. Applause thus lost much of its significance, which I believe is why the Warwick audience's applause was overall united, but extremely brief. Applause served, in the end, mostly as a form of self-affirmation of the experience: we were applauding because that's what we would do in the course of a live event; we were attempting to justify our experience as truly theatrical.

This was immediately undercut, as the safety curtain went down for the last time, by the appearance of scrolling credits, listing cast, crew and technical support for the broadcast. Applause or credits - can you have both? For this event you apparently can, but neither seemed to properly fit the moment. These final moments of confusion over how to respond were entirely dictated by anxiety over how we were supposed to respond, and it was clear that the audience at Warwick were very much divided on this: some felt it was a film, some a show, some something undefined inbetween that had no rules. What was lacking was the feeling of a gut, unified audience response: the swell of an ovation, the shared intakes of breath, the movement and buzz of a live audience. The audience watching Phedre in the Warwick Arts Centre Theatre last night were like no theatre audience I've ever been a part of. The appearance of the cinema screen immediately asks people to sit back and be entertained, to be passive, and for Phedre this simply felt wrong.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

So, a lot of problems. I actually thoroughly enjoyed the production itself, even if I'm suspicious of the medium through which I experienced it. My final big worry, however, is that the inevitable success of this experiment will result in a shift towards this as the norm for the provinces, as opposed to large-scale touring shows. It's been a while since the National brought a large show around (the Arts Centre has had History Boys, Caucasian Chalk Circle, The Pillowman and plenty of other big productions in the last few years), and the live screening is a far cheaper and wider-reaching means of fulfilling the touring remit. I think this is a wonderful, wonderful thing for those areas to which the National would never go: for theatre-lovers in Australia or the US, for example, the chance to see a production that there would be no other way of seeing is obviously a great thing.

As a way of reaching larger audiences, too, it's a laudable enterprise - though, a far more democratic and academically sound way of doing this is to follow the RSC model: take the company into a studio, film a proper, made-for-camera version of the production and then screen it on TV and sell DVDs, which allows it to reach a much wider audience than the NT Live project and remakes the theatrical product in a manner which works with the screen medium. My issues with this project are the claims that it in any way replicates the theatrical experience: from an academic and theoretical point of view, this is deeply problematic, and even in realisation it lacked much of what makes a theatrical experience truly theatrical.

The next NT Live production is All's Well That Ends Well on October 1st, which will give me the chance to see the live screening applied to a production I've already seen in person, which I hope will allow me to compare the experiences usefully. For now, I found Phedre itself successful, but the medium will, to my mind, only be acceptable if it continues to be an optional extra, rather than a perceived replacement for the live experience.

June 17, 2009


We're nearing the halfway point of 2009, and by my reckoning I've seen about 18 Shakespeare productions so far this year. Interestingly, though, among those eighteen there has been quite a lot of repetition: three As You Like Its, two Othellos, two Caesars and two Winter's Tales, for example. I've been trying to review the productions largely independently, but I thought it might be fun to register a few comparative thoughts on what I've seen.


Two interesting if flawed productions, from the RSC and Northern Broadsides. The two were fascinatingly different, but on the whole I preferred the more straightforward Broadsides production. Lenny Henry's Othello and Conrad Nelson's Iago had a wonderful dynamic which powered the play, while the RSC's production was unbalanced by Patrice Naiambana in the title role. However, the RSC's production was far more innovative, and in many ways is the one that has stuck with me in terms of academic interest: it may have failed in many places, but it failed interestingly.

RSC defining moment: a beautiful, atmospheric dream sequence between Desdemona and her dead father.

Broadsides defining moment: a raucous, hysterical and expertly choreographed drinking scene.

As You Like It

No contest here. The Globe's production redefined the play for me: warm, funny and touching. It had the sincerity that the RSC's production entirely lacked, making the larger-scale production a rather cold, aloof affair that failed to engage me at all. However, Tim Supple's appropriation of the play to comment on immigration and concerns over national identity was timely and extremely interesting, providing the most thought-provoking production of my year so far.

Globe defining moment: Silvius' disarmingly moving discourse on what it means to be in love.

RSC defining moment: The brilliantly psychotic preacher, Oliver Martext.

Dash Arts defining moment: the multicultural four-way wedding ceremony that closed the play.

Julius Caesar

Two more very different productions, from the RSC and the Tobacco Factory. Again, unfortunately, it's the RSC who lose out. Lucy Bailey's production had a lot to recommend it, but ultimately felt like something of a mess. Where it succeeded was in distinguishing the vast army of characters and creating fascinating readings, particularly in Sam Troughton's obsessive Brutus. However, the Tobacco Factory's intimate production used the closeness of its environment to spectacular effect, turning the play into a tale of Jacobean intrigue, with conspirators huddled in dark rooms and wars plotted from a boardroom. By prioritising Octavius and Antony in the mix, too, Andrew Hilton's production crucially kept momentum during the second half, forging an increasingly fascinating story out of the two emergent victors.

RSC defining moment: Cassius and Brutus' first meeting with a wonderful, sneering Casca.

Tobacco Factory defining moment: Antony, left alone for the first time after Caesar's death, screaming vengeance.

The Winter's Tale

This is the toughest comparison as both productions were, in their own way, excellent. The Old Vic boasted the best Leontes I've ever seen in Simon Russell Beale, sacrificing sympathy for Hermione in order to create a believably human portrayal of a man's descent into jealousy. However, the slow pace and a lacklustre Bohemia section (rescued by Ethan Hawke's Autolycus) meant that I preferred the combined efforts of the RSC ensemble. The conflicting worlds of civilised court and anarchic countryside were a fantastic design hook around which to hinge the play's central concerns, and solid performances across the board made for a thoroughly enjoyable experience. Plus, no-one does a good phallic fertility ritual like the RSC.

RSC defining moment: An awe-inspiring bear made up of loose pages devouring Autolycus, the folk culture of Bohemia unleashed after the collapse of Sicily.

Old Vic defining moment: Leontes cradling the newborn baby Perdita, torn between love and hatred for the child.

The Winter's Tale (The Bridge Project) @ The Old Vic

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The Bridge Project is a major new collaboration between London's Old Vic and New York's Brooklyn Academy of Music. Bringing together the best of English and American talent, the Project will be offering three seasons of Shakespeare and Chekov, with plays paired thematically. For this opening season, directed by Sam Mendes, The Winter's Tale was paired with The Cherry Orchard, two plays exploring love and loss and linked at the start of each by a projected caption from Richard II: “O call back yesterday, bid time return”.

Even when seen alone, The Winter's Tale betrayed the influence of a company devoted as equally to Chekov as to Shakespeare, for better and for worse. This was an excellently performed production, the cast bringing out often-hidden subtleties in the text and finding layers of complexity in the characters. More negatively, though, this close focus resulted in the production often being static, even sedentary; even the sheep-shearing festival saw the bulk of the revellers sit for most of the scene, while a circle of chairs was laid out in the final scene for the court to sit and admire Hermione's statue. The staging was therefore often visually quite dull, a problem for those of us in the gods less able to appreciate the more subtle work being done.

However, the quiet simplicity of the staging was often to the production's benefit. The opening scene (Camillo and Archidamus' opening conversation was cut) took place in Mamillius' bedroom; Leontes sat on the child's bed, Hermione on the floor and Polixenes perched on a chair nearby. This intimate, domestic opening emphasised the bonds between the three as private rather than public, serving to both give Leontes some cause for his initial suspicion and accentuate the tragedy of what his jealousy had destroyed. Hermione and Polixenes lounged together on a cushion on the floor after the latter had been persuaded to stay, toying with each other's hands and gazing into each other's eyes. Josh Hamilton's Polixenes was some years younger than Simon Russell Beale's Leontes, and Leontes was thus - at least, at first - touchingly sympathetic in his insecurity, standing awkwardly apart from the younger pair and reminiscing about his early days with Hermione in a bid for attention.

I sincerely disliked Rebecca Hall's Hermione, both in character and in performance. This Hermione was oblivious to her husband's lack of confidence, and the way she turned pointedly back to Polixenes, gazing into his eyes as she spoke of the second time she had spoken well, seemed an almost deliberate attempt to tease her husband. She came across as slightly spoiled, happy to be the centre of attention and fawned over by her husband's friend. Coupled with her apparent disregard for Leontes' own feelings, the performance left us in a troubling position; she was difficult to like, but at the same time her suffering at Leontes' hands was unconscionable. Her remark of "I never hoped to see you sorry; now I trust I shall" came out as an attempt to provoke guilt, and even when sat in court her anger manifested itself partly as petulance. While it was interesting to see a less-than-saintly Hermione, an audience still needs something to engage with. Here, it was Leontes who had most of our sympathy, his suffering and jealousy an entirely human reaction to his personal feelings of abandonment and loneliness.

Beale's performance was a masterclass in acting, always believable and sympathetic even when descending into the furthest reaches of his jealousy. Whether plucking Morven Christie's Mamillius away from Polixenes' grasp or twitching nervously at one end of the trial table, this was a man always at conflict with himself. One of the strongest moments came as Sinead Cusack's Paulina brought in the baby Perdita for him to hold. Given the baby, Leontes was simultaneously drawn to it and repulsed by it, holding it tenderly while weeping at his own hatred for it. In the act of holding it, his lines were painfully immediate: "But be it; let it live" offered hope for a moment as father embraced daughter, but the following "It shall not neither" saw him make his final decision (2.3.156-7).

The mania of Leontes reached its apotheosis in the court scene, conducted interestingly at a single table, with Leontes and Hermione at either end and an extremely uncomfortable judge in the middle, stammering and nervous at the task he was being asked to perform. I found the oracle extremely problematic: here, a wooden box was opened and a quill removed, which magically stood itself upright and began scrawling its judgment on a piece of parchment. Aside from the inescapable Harry Potter associations, this open display of magic early in the play served to make Leontes' defiance particularly incomprehensible - why would you not believe the magic pen?! - and also undermined somewhat Paulina's later request to "awake your faith" (5.3.95). In a world where magic had already been proven to exist on so tangible a level, belief in these arts was no longer an issue.

So to Bohemia, where a coloured cyclorama presented a depth that opened out the second half of the play from the closed rooms of Leontes' court. Dakin Matthews' Antigonus was victim of a genuinely scary bear, lifesize and realistic, that padded in on all fours in dim silhouette, hiding in the shadows. Squatting behind the spotlit Antigonus, the bear drew some laughs as it appeared to be patiently waiting for him to finish his speech, but as it rose up and roared behind him, the stage was immediately blacked out, leaving a searing image in the mind's eye. Bohemia itself was reimagined as late 19th century America, in literal contrast to the Victorian English court of Sicilia. This allowed the Anglo-American cast to be neatly divided between the two physical locations, making a simple and clear distinction between the two cultures which was particularly effective in the case of Morven Christie's Perdita, who having grown up in Bohemia naturally adopted an American accent.

Unfortunately, the Bohemia scenes failed to work as effectively as those in Sicilia. The relatively inert staging that had brought out the nuances in earlier scenes here failed to conjure an appropriately festive atmosphere for what appeared to be a Thanksgiving celebration, making the long sheep-shearing scene feel that much longer. Bohemia was enlivened, however, by Ethan Hawke's Autolycus, a travelling troubadour with acoustic guitar who first appeared in silhouette, striding over a hill in an instantly iconic pose. While Hawke failed to do anything truly innovative with the part, he infused the second act with energy and wry humour, and occasional belly laughs. His initial meeting with Tobias Segel's Young Shepherd involved Autolycus bringing out a huge prop cross onto which he hung himself in a entertainingly overblown scheme for sympathy. Ballads and trinkets hung from the lining of his long cloak, and his impersonation of a foppish courtier was particularly hilarious, lounging in a chair and describing the tortures lined up for the Shepherds with relish.

Christie's Perdita and Michael Braun's Florizel were both solid if unexceptional, in what are often relatively thankless parts. Christie was strongest on her return to Sicilia, where she gazed with wide-eyed wonderment at her new found family. In a strong moment occasioned by the doubling of Perdita and Mamillius, Leontes reached out as if in a daze and touched her nose, recalling his earlier wiping of Mamillius' smutched nose, and Paulina too took a keen interest in the young girl. The conclusion, though, while visually focussing itself around the statue of Hermione, placed at extreme downstage with the courtiers sat in a semi-circle behind it, prioritised Leontes again. The revived Hermione was very different to the Hermione of Act 1- stately, dignified and almost silent, a shadow of her former self. Instantly more likeable than the earlier version, it however served to make her something of a blank in these final moments: for all we saw of her, this could well have been an animated statue. It was in the impact on Leontes that the awakening became truly magical, he weeping to be reunited and pulling his newly-extended family together, gazing on the united pairs while himself standing slightly apart.

A final bid for complication saw the rest of the cast move upstage, leaving Leontes and Hermione alone. Leontes offered his hand, and the lights went down as Hermione looked at it, leaving their future in question. It was a complication which felt slightly forced after a relatively conventional awakening scene, and not particularly necessary: from what we had seen of this Hermione and Leontes, there's was never going to be an easy journey back to happiness. This production, then, was a qualified success. Mendes' direction was superb, and this closely-acted production was a welcome respite from high concepts and broad brushstrokes. However, its main strength was in Beale's phenomenal central performance, which stood out in an otherwise competent, solid but ultimately conventional production.

June 16, 2009

Catching up

Just a note for regulars that there will be a few backdated reviews appearing over the next few days, so do keep an eye out for reviews of the National's All's Well, The Old Vic's Winter's Tale, the Globe's As You Like It and the RSC's Caesar appearing retrospectively. Very busy week for theatregoing and conferences, hence only managing to get them written up now.

On another note, I've hit a bit of a landmark in finally seeing a professional production of All's Well, which was the last canonical play I hadn't seen put on professionally. That's one more Shakespearean box ticked off. Here's a few more, most of which I hope to see in the next few years:

  • An English-language Titus Andronicus (the Globe's was in Complete Works year, when I had no time to see anything not in Stratford!)

  • An off-book production of Two Noble Kinsmen (I've only seen a very good rehearsed reading)

  • A good Measure for Measure (I've only seen the Theatre Royal Bath production, which was horrible)

  • Edward III, though I may be waiting a little while for this....

June 12, 2009

Julius Caesar (RSC) @ The Courtyard Theatre

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I've seen a wide variety of techniques used to conjure up the crowd who act as onstage witnesses to the orations that form the climactic set piece of Julius Caesar. Sometimes actors have moved among the audience, implicitly bolstering their numbers with the seated masses. At other times, offstage shouting has been used to enhance the noise and chaos of the listeners. Lucy Bailey's new production for the RSC, however, was the first time I've ever seen CGI utilised on a stage to create a crowd. On back video screens, life-size human figures were shown moving as a mass, shouting and raising their arms, responding noisily to the words of Brutus and Antony, while real actors moved through gaps in the screens, providing some real life accompaniment for the screen audience. It was a spectacular failure for several reasons: the video crowd failed to respond in believable synchronicity with the orations; the on-stage actors were anchored to the movements of their digital counterparts; and it was incredibly distracting, introducing a layer of artifice which competed unhelpfully for attention with the on-stage action.

The projection was symptomatic of a production that suffered primarily from over-direction and over-design, a surplus of ideas that combined to make a whole that was messy and ultimately unsatisfactory. This was a particular shame as so many of the individual ideas and performances were absolutely fine; unlike the Globe's As You Like It, this was a production that was less than the sum of its parts.

In an interesting beginning, Tunji Kassim and Joseph Arkley circled each other half-naked, snarling ferally and grappling under a projected image of the famous Romulus and Remus statue. Eventually, Romulus tore with his teeth at his brother's neck, killing him in a mess of blood, before howling and leaving the stage. Bailey's Rome was thus rooted in its primal and barbaric origins, the implication being that the act of the conspirators was no less savage and bloody for the veneer of civilisation that obscured it. Greg Hicks' Caesar was visually linked back to the wild past by wearing furs and military brass instead of the more customary togas, locating him as a man of war and violence rather than a politician, part of the violent founding lineage of the nation.

Against this pagan mythology, Sam Troughton's Brutus at first cut a somewhat messianic figure, standing in white robes among his black-robed fellow conspirators. If this was Jesus, though, Troughton's staring eyes and passive-aggressive attitude towards Cassius made him a conflicted one, a man whose essentially decent morals clashed with an ingrained suspicion and cynicism. It became clear, in fact, that another white-robed icon made a far more compelling parallel - T.E. Lawrence. As Brutus read the petitions that Cassius had flung through his window, the beginnings of a mania crossed his face. Brutus became consumed by an obsession, a concern with his own legend and ability to influence the course of events. It was in the doing, rather than the consequences, that Brutus found his justification, a sense of basic rightness unfettered by objective moral constraints. Killing Caesar became "right", and Brutus' ability to comprehend his own actions increasingly compromised.

It was a role that Troughton grew into during the course of the production, which was a relief after a very shaky start. The first conversation between Brutus and John Mackay's Cassius was a bloodless, lifeless and deathly dull scene, during which the two actors circled each other with what seemed to be a fundamental disinterest in the matters of which they spoke. I was particularly surprised in the case of Mackay, normally such a wonderful performer, that his Cassius was underplayed to the point of making the character almost obsolete. When emotion came through, such as in his bitter "And this man/ Is now become a god", a hint of the complexity that drives the character was tantalisingly seen, but rarely followed through. However, Mackay too improved as the production went on, and 4.2 saw him angry and frustrated at Brutus' increasingly detached and arrogant manner.

The manic bent of this Brutus saw his relationships with others compromised too; Brutus' concern was Brutus. In this sense, Troughton's performance slightly unbalanced the production, allowing a fascinating reading of the character but at the expense of others. Tunji Kasim's Lucius, for example, was denied the closeness to Brutus that often strengthens the former and humanises the latter; here, Brutus peered at his sleeping servant with curiosity, as if remembering the emotional attachments that had defined him before his decision to turn conspirator. Hannah Young as Portia gave a gutsy and determined performance, using force to make Brutus pay attention to her, culminating in the revealing of the ugly scar up her thigh, the only thing that eventually drew Brutus' full focus. These scenes all contributed to the development of Brutus, but bordered perilously closely on making the other characters mere foils for him.

Good work was done in individualising the conspirators, with some striking performances making this a rare production in which the individual personalities of the murderers could be distinguished. Paul Hamilton's wounded and warlike Caius Ligarius moved on a crutch, a disabled but still formidable ally; Brian Doherty's Decius Brutus brought an intelligent wit and influential tongue to his key scene with Caesar, while Gruffudd Glyn's Cinna was youthful and enthusiastic, engaging with a committment almost equal to Brutus' own. In a standout performance, though, Oliver Ryan made for a tremendous Casca. With an oily voice and fixed sneer, Ryan's performance moved away from the humour usually associated with the character to a dissatisfied sarcasm, his tone speaking of his disgust at Caesar's honours. It was one of those rare performances which let you see a relatively minor character afresh, a true eye-opener.

Darrell D'Silva's performance was dismissed by some critics as reducing Mark Antony to a drunken lout, which does a great disservice to the performance I saw. In his earliest appearances, during the bacchanals, Antony was naturally ebullient and half-dressed, throwing up in a corner after a heavy night. Yet this seems to me to be entirely in keeping with what the play calls for; and when Antony joined the conspirators after Caesar's murder, this was no lout but a furious and powerful political animal called into being. D'Silva's handling of the orations, despite the distractions of the CGI crowd, was masterfully executed, building his rhetoric to a thunderous conclusion. "Friends, Romans..." was a cry for attention from which his speech grew in strength and structure. It was testament to the apparent sincerity of his 'spontaneous' delivery that he received a laugh from the audience on "Now let it work", as if his true intention had been concealed up until that point.

Greg Hicks made for a strong Caesar, if an arrogant. His treatment of the conspirators in the senate spoke of his ambition, pushing Metellus down as he spoke of spurning his request. Yet there was much human in this Caesar as well, as shown by a neatly played domestic scene with Calphurnia. The two engaged in an amusing battle of wills, which saw Caesar playfully belittling her in front of Decius Brutus to her embarrassment, and as Decius gave his alternative reading of Calphurnia's dream, Caesar teasingly mocked her. His murder was violent and bloody, and Hicks admirably refused to try and dignify it. "Et tu, Brute?" was a cry of mocking derision, arms thrown up in defiance of the conspirators, and he died in a pile of twitches at the foot of the podium from which he had delivered his pronouncements.

While there was much to enjoy in the first half, the ensemble failed to convincingly negotiate the confused wars of the second. The soldiers of the opposing armies were drawn directly from Julie Taymor's Titus, muddied and marching in stylised unison (and wearing ridiculous full body tights with caked mud on under their armour, which meant the actors' torsos looked like they were creasing) and the burgeoning Triumvirate failed to make an impression of any sort. Caesar's Ghost was escorted on by a bizarre, ghostly Calphurnia, presumably in some echo of the pagan Soothsayer and his female acolyte, but with no particular sense. The connections to Romulus and Remus were laid on with a trowel as the fight scenes lost their weapons and resorted to hand-to-hand brawling. Finally, as Strato held out his sword for Brutus, Caesar re-entered, swung a sword and slew Brutus himself. Caesar as a play tends to lose momentum once war breaks out, but instead of trying to make sense of it, there were too many ideas thrown into the mix, rendering the final scenes a confused mess that kept Brutus at its centre, but allowed all else to fall into chaos. In the final moments, as the new Triumvirate left the stage, soldiers around them spontaneously died, falling to the ground. It was one final incoherent moment in a production that suffered from trying to do too much, and ultimately ended up spoiling its own effect.

June 10, 2009

All's Well That Ends Well @ The National Theatre (Olivier)

The label of “problem play” has long been regarded as an unhelpful and negatively loaded description for those plays of Shakespeare’s which fit uncomfortably into neat genres, yet in the case of All’s Well That Ends Well, the label has stuck. Marianne Elliott’s new production for the National Theatre, however, made a virtue of the production’s problems by emphasising the play’s fairytale characteristics; after all, this is a story of trial and adversity, of journeys and miracle cures, of love transcending class boundaries and ultimate happy endings. In emphasising these facets of the play, Elliott’s production took one of Shakespeare’s least loved plays and turned it into a magical, fresh folk tale.

The set acted as an immediate declaration of the production’s intentions. Silhouettes of rickety gothic towers ascended towards the heavens, where a full moon and stormy clouds shone over a night sky covered in cobwebs, along which projected spiders scuttled. Narrow walkways snaked across jagged mountains, owls hooted and wolves howled. This black and white landscape acted as backdrop to the Rossillion home, a bleak and colourless household overwhelmed by mourning. Even on the move to the French court, only a long red carpet broke the stark colour scheme, and it was not until the action moved to Florence that the palette substantially changed. The effect was to set the events of the first act in a half-real, half-fictional world that allowed for magic and used clear intertextual references to shape its characters; Helena, for example, donned a red hooded travelling cloak that re-cast her as Red Riding Hood, with the wolves howling as she ended the first act heading off alone into the mountains as she abandoned France.

As an important part of the fairytale setting, Elliott laid particular emphasis on the play’s concern with class. Michelle Terry’s Helena was little more than a servant in the Rossillion household, indistinguishable at first from the other waiting women. Her only real friendship, surprisingly, was with Conleth Hill’s Parolles, with whom she shared a bond that saw the two exchanging bawdy jokes and laughing before Parolles left to accompany Bertram to Paris. By contrast, Helena was barely noticed by Bertram, he acknowledging her only in his final words before leaving. Establishing this early connection between Parolles and Helena allowed for a richer understanding of the motivations of both; she felt the class divide was unbridgeable, necessitating her convoluted schemes; while Parolles adopted an affected accent and ebullient manner in order to compensate for his own insecurity. Difficulties of class were further evoked through Rynaldo’s disgust at the Countess and Lavatch flirting openly in her chambers

Terry was a solid and likeable Helena, permanently downcast but made sympathetic by her determination to improve her standing. Occasionally her despair broke out, such as in a lonely scream before taking the decision to leave France. Her sadness was often extremely touching, notably in the French court when asked to choose her husband. The four presented to her – including a bookish chemist, an arrogant sportsman and a simpleton who gave her flowers – were eminently unsuitable and yet still disdainful of her, while Bertram laughed openly at the suggestion that he might marry her. In the fairytale context, the attitudes and prejudice she was forced to endure became obstacles to be overcome, allowing her to demonstrate her indomitability of spirit. As a heroine, Terry’s Helena was admirable for her resilience rather than her wit, and the dark, cold world into which Elliott plunged her emphasised this strength.

George Rainsford’s Bertram opened the production, childishly swinging a sword as he fought invisible enemies. His rudeness and inconsiderate nature were chalked down to age and social inexperience, rendering him somewhat more sympathetic than usual as a character. He was honest in saying what he did and did not want, and sullen at the grown-up world’s repeated refusal to allow him to follow his own path, throwing himself sulkily onto a couch as his fellows went off to war. The forced marriage in which he found himself was clearly unwelcome, and we watched in silhouette as he appeared waving at off-stage crowds with Helena before downing a glass of champagne in an attempt to console himself.

Bertram was thus one of the very few characters apparently immune to Helena’s magic. While convincing the King of her ability to cure him, the court dropped away into shadow and the two were bathed in coloured light, the mystical nature of her father’s arts being invoked in the persuasion as well as in the cure. Similarly, when returning to public view after her reported death, her entrance was accompanied by heavenly music and petals falling from the sky across the court. Helena was visually linked, therefore, to the supernatural and elemental, and it was in these moments where she appeared most confident. When dealing with the real world, however, she was far less so. The lead-up to the bed trick was staged, interspersed with 4.3 as the two Lords Dumaine spoke of the wars and the Count. Diana and Helena hung a white sheet across one side of the stage, and then changed into sexy kitten costumes, in which Helena was extremely awkward. As Diana blindfolded Bertram, Helena stepped forward and took her place, uncomfortable at reconciling her own tender feelings towards her husband with the kinky games Bertram was expecting. The lights went down, thus, on a troubled moment that problematised the moment of duplicitous seduction. These problems remained with the couple until the end; as a photographer took shots of various courtly groupings, Helena and Bertram shared uncomfortable and not entirely happy glances. Helena had orchestrated her fairytale ending, but married life would begin on a note of discord.

The colours of Florence provided a marked contrast to France. Janet Henfrey’s Widow was hostess of a bar, with neon signs and fairy lights giving the region a liveliness and colour previously lacking. The ladies of Florence, too, were dressed in Mediterranean frocks and chatted with a liveliness that contrasted nicely with the quiet Helena’s subdued arrival. Into this bar scene came the Florentine army in slow motion; drinking, celebrating, holding Bertram up on their shoulders and carrying off one of the young girls. This scene, introducing the second half of the play, set up a world more grounded in reality, forcing Helena to rely on more sordid tricks to achieve her ends, and allowing the focus to shift slightly towards the Parolles subplot. Hill was enormously entertaining as the cowardly soldier, although the background of class insecurity rendered his motives more understandable. Alone in 4.1, he muttered recriminations to himself for offering to retrieve the drum and ran at the sounds of hooting and howling; but yet, his seeming inability to control his own need for acceptance was at the same time touching.

The tricks played on Parolles were simply and effectively staged, the victim being sat downstage on a bench and blindfolded. However, the company brought out some nice individual moments, such as the Interpreter’s attempts to mimic a Russian accent after Parolles’ assertion that he had been caught by Muscovites, and the Brothers Dumaine attempting to restrain each other as the unknowing Parolles insulted each of them. While the increasingly panicked confessions of the blindfolded captive were amusing, however, the most effective part of the scene came after the blindfold was removed and his captors had left the stage. Left alone, Parolles reflected partly in shame on what had happened, but quickly shrugged it off. His cowardice exposed, he embraced the freedom of being who he truly was, abandoning his social ambitions. In his subsequent appearances, therefore, he was bedraggled and stinking, but all the happier for it. His final acceptance of a post under Lafew fed into this; where Parolles had been extremely awkward in the early exchanges of banter with Lafew, unable to pose effective counter-arguments, here both men eagerly accepted a genial relationship more fitting with their respective social stations. While the reinforcement of archaic class types is problematic, the neat moral which the production found in Parolles’ tale was a simple one of being happy with one’s own lot; a fitting reading for a fairytale production.

Brendan O’Hea’s excellent Lavatch was a severe clown, more a confidante for the Countess than an entertainer. His close relationship to the women of the house was repeatedly referenced, whether lounging on a chair with the Countess or standing shocked beside Helena as she received the news of Bertram’s departure. Clare Higgins, playing the Countess, was a strong yet emotional figure, increasingly conflicted between love for her son and digust at his behaviour. Yet she was an inherently playful figure, both with Lavatch and with Helena, who she particularly relished teasing as she drew from her a confession of love for Bertram. In this, she was paralleled by Oliver Ford Davies’ King of France, a similarly joking figure who used humour to ignore the pain of his illness. The relief brought to him by Helena, physically realised quickly as the two re-entered dancing after his cure, allowed the King to become a more active and emotionally involved character, particularly in the final scene as he grew increasingly frustrated with Diana’s enigmatic answers. Nonetheless, the King retained his humour and his final promise of a husband for Diana drew cries of despair from the courtiers, a response he had clearly hoped for. This final clash of playful comedy with the question mark over Helena and Bertram’s future encapsulated the production perfectly: a fairytale that fused magical comedy with the grounded complexities of real life. Elliott’s production was a triumph, and a powerful call for more frequent revival of a neglected play.

This review originally appeared at Shakespeare Revue .

As You Like It @ Shakespeare's Globe

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Only a couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that As You Like It is one of my least favourite Shakespeare plays. In no small part, this is due simply to the fact that I’ve seen the play several times, but been distinctly underwhelmed on every occasion. I’m extremely pleased, therefore, to be able to say that I’ve finally seen the proverbial good As You Like It, at Shakespeare’s Globe in Thea Sharrock’s wonderful production.

Greater than the sum of its parts, Sharrock’s simply staged version of the play was by turns hysterically funny and surprisingly moving. Michael Benz’s superlative Silvius was a perfect example of this, amusingly desperate but always sympathetic, his love honest and believable. His answer to the question of what love is, accompanied by some gentle steel drumming, brought a tear to my eye. Benz’s skill appears to be in investing comic characters with humanity, and his Silvius thus became the heart of the scenes in which he appeared.

The play was often re-arranged for dramatic effect, resulting in a fast and coherent text that (dare I say it) felt far better structured than the original, serving in the second half to structure the subplots more effectively around Rosalind and thus strengthen her centrality. The simple removal of 4.2 turned 4.1 and 4.3 into a single continuous scene that allowed Rosalind to deal deftly with Orlando, Silvius and Oliver in turn. Naomi Frederick’s Rosalind was simultaneously shy and confident as Ganymede, expertly following through her plans but yet subject to impulses and doubts. Her disguise was repeatedly betrayed by her high voice, which she reminded herself to lower, and her irrepressible excitement at being around Orlando also threatened to ruin her plans at every turn.

The fact that this Rosalind didn’t always maintain control made her relationship with Jack Laskey’s Orlando uniquely fascinating. After being “married” by Celia, Rosalind surrendered to the moment, leaned in and gave Orlando a lingering kiss. Turning away from him, she giggled to the audience, but failed to see Orlando’s shocked face of recognition – it was at this point that he realised who ‘Ganymede’ really was. With Orlando in on the joke, the remainder of their scenes became a mutual game that placed the two lovers on an equal footing, both enjoying their disguised courtship and teasing the other. This allowed Laskey’s Orlando to become a far more likeable and engaging hero than in any other production I’ve seen, allowing his intelligence and wit to shine through. With Oliver also in on the secret (on picking Rosalind up after her faint, he found himself grabbing her chest), the two brothers played their own jokes: Orlando’s injury by the lion, for example, was a fabrication, and the sling immediately removed when the two brothers were alone together.

As the central relationship was so engaging, there was less pressure to play up the significance of supporting roles, thus freeing other actors to simply enjoy their parts and entertain. This was particularly true of Dominic Rowan’s Touchstone and Tim McMullan’s Jaques, both excellent. Rowan began the play in motley, but for the entire of his time in Arden was actually the smartest character on stage, playing up the character’s intelligent and courtly fooling, and allowing for a repeated joke about him stepping in something unseemly. Rowan played up to the crowd throughout, often rolling his eyes in a plea for sympathy at his having to deal with forest folk. In 3.3, his line “and as pigeons bill, so wedlock would be nibbling” was spoken in direct reference to a pigeon that had just decided to take off from the stage, bringing sustained applause and Touchstone shouting “It’s in the script!” In terms of the character’s wider importance, however, this Touchstone served as the audience’s most important and constant connection with the play, Rowan deliberately setting the character slightly outside the stage action in order to provided good-humoured criticism of it. By acknowledging the audience as he insulted Audrey, Corin and others, he cast those scenes as entertainments, shared performative jokes.

McMullan’s Jaques, by contrast, was as a character entirely within the world of the play, but yet spent much of his time in the yard with the groundlings. Other reviews have referred to him as “lugubrious”, and there is no better word for McMullan’s performance. Luxurious, lazy and comically detached, Jaques breezed easily around the entire auditorium (even the top galleries as he watched Audrey and Touchstone prepare for their wedding) and commented with good-natured amusement on everything he saw. It’s the kind of performance which can be insufferable, yet McMullan’s ever-present smile betrayed the character’s detachment even from his own opinions. Where other recent Jaques’ have been almost misanthropic, McMullan’s version of the character loved life and loved people, but was simply more interested in the larger questions, his search for “matter”. Everything amused him, whether Touchstone’s antics or his own joke at the audience’s expense that they were the fools who his invocation of “Ducdame” had called into a circle.

Both Touchstone and Jaques were thus free to become uncomplicated entertainers, rather than having to provide “matter”, making the play as a whole an extremely enjoyable experience as one eminently watchable character followed another. However, this shouldn’t imply that the production steered clear of darkness or complication. The opening saw the stage draped heavily in black and the court, in black Jacobean dress, process formally onto the stage. Brendan Hughes’ young Duke Frederick and Jamie Parker’s Oliver provided suitably villainous dominant figures in the play’s early scenes, against which the livelier spirits of Orlando, Rosalind and Celia were strained and compromised. Le Beau, too, became a relatively severe tool of the Duke. In his first appearance, he interrupted a playful scene in which Rosalind and Celia were throwing Touchstone’s coxcomb between them. Le Beau grabbed the coxcomb from mid air and dropped it to the floor, much to Touchstone’s chagrin. In this court, fun was strictly prohibited, and the flight to Arden (for which the black cloths were stripped away to reveal the bare wooden pillars of the Globe) was a liberation.

A bit of early re-cutting provided a more tense build-up to the wrestling scene, by placing Le Beau’s report of the fight before Charles’ meeting with Oliver, meaning that Oliver’s permission for Charles to harm his brother came immediately before the battle itself. For the fight, a ring was created in the pit, allowing the fight to range across the stage and down among the groundlings. Sean Kearns made for a physically imposing Charles, and a genial, earthy Corin, a solid presence throughout.

The production’s small touches were too innumerable to recount here. A goat taunted Touchstone from beneath a trapdoor, poking its head out to bleat at him; Phoebe’s “And if mine eyes can wound, now let them kill thee” was accompanied with an ‘evil eye’ stare in an attempt to put her words into practice; Touchstone’s coxcomb changed costume as he did; printed poems fell from the ceilings and galleries over the audience. The invention was in the small detail rather than sweeping concepts, and the production relied on its relationships between characters and audience rather than on set-pieces. In this, as I began, it was greater than the sum of its parts, the ensemble working to draw the audience into its world and share a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

The only awkward note was in the play’s final resolution, which unusually (and bravely) brought on Hymen as a god, a newly-introduced actor rather than Corin or Adam in disguise, coming up through the audience to bless the couples. It brought the play to a somewhat abrupt close, interrupting Rosalind’s conclusion of her plots, presumably explaining why the character is so often cut or reduced in importance. However, Ewart James Walters brought a striking presence to these closing moments and the appearance of Hymen did provide an authoritative finality to the “confusions”. With a jig and a final interruption for Rosalind to deliver an effective and genuinely amusing Epilogue, the best As You Like It I’ve seen yet closed, a triumph for all concerned.

June 05, 2009

A Midsummer Night's Dream (WUDS) @ Warwick Arts Centre Studio

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June has only just begun, and already I've seen my second Dream of the year. I admit, I'm always a little bit sceptic when entering an auditorium for another production of this play; it's so over-familiar and over-produced, matched probably only by Romeo for the amount of workaday productions trotted out annually, that I find myself demanding justification for yet another revival. Unlike Romeo, however, my experience of the Dream is that it tends to resist bad production- even the most uninventive or unoriginal productions I've been to have still managed to entertain.

Warwick University Drama Society, though, refused to settle for mediocrity with their new production. This Dream was dominated by the untamed, wild spirit of its fairy world, a chaotic and animalistic passion that drove events forward at high speed and maximum volume. Yet this was by no means a free-for-all: the performers and choreographers demonstrated tremendous discipline and technical ability in unleashing what looked like all-out carnage but was actually carefully planned for maximum effect.

Borrowing a device from last year's student production of The Tempst, Puck was played simultaneously by five different actors, loosely embodying different aspects of the fairy's character: the permanently-grinning Soraya Nabipour, for example, took on the moments of fast activity, pounding her feet eagerly on the floor as she prepared to launch her flights; while Annabel Betts, weighed down by an enormous rucksack, took on a quieter and more inquisitive role. Puck was best, though, as a collective, the five actors working together for greater effect. The mental level and attitude of the fairies was pitched somewhere between children and animals; the Pucks picked fleas off each other and scratched each others' heads, and reacted with fear to the persecutions of Titania's fairies, huddling together for comfort. Titania's fairies were also five in number, allowing for what were effectively showdowns between the two groups, accompanied by drumming and dancing. The asides and character moments among these ten were too numerous to attempt detail; characters rolled across their fellows' backs, built pyramids, picked at scenery, broke into unexpected song, slithered or jumped across the stage and teased each other. The overall effect was more important than the detail; the kids had taken over the playground, and the fairies captured the excitement, humour and chaos unleashed when power and childishness are given free rein.

Over this presided Kate Richards' Titania and Gwilym Lawrence's Oberon. Titania was a snarling animal of a fairy queen, dominant and instinctive whether pawing Bottom or intimidating Oberon. Oberon, by contrast, was unexpectedly childish, a meek and high-pitched simpleton with a sing-song voice who was easily cowed by Titania and her stronger servants. Lawrence's performance brought out a great deal from the role, making his request for the Indian boy not tyrannical but curious, and his subsequent actions were borne out of petulant retribution. A particular amusing but telling action saw Oberon and the Pucks fascinated, almost hypnotised, by the necklace of the Boy's mother which Titania wore around her neck, following it with their eyes and swaying in unison. The antics and conflicts were occasioned by childish conceptions of possession and greed, innocent yet ingrained. It also went some way to explaining the mistakes made with the love-in-idleness; the fairies were hopelessly out of their depth in their attempts to interfere, thus increasing the comedy of the crossed wires.

The flower itself was a camera with extended flash gun, accompanied by a supernatually huge flash effect as the pictures of the sleeping lovers were taken. The fascination of the fairies with the technology was a locating factor for a production which set itself (judging by the music and mortal costumes) in the 50s, at a period when rock n' roll was gradually taking over from swing ballads. The walls of the studio were decorated in advertising cards and postcards of Athens, while the set itself was, on entry, set as a rehearsal space-cum-workroom for the Mechanicals' production. With brooms acting as microphones, the six workers sang along to old records, immediately giving a nostalgic atmosphere to the setting.

The Mechanicals were generally excellent, and extremely amusing. Sam Maynard's Bottom was effusive and over-confident, given to fixed dramatic gestures (his 'lover' and 'tyrant' were identical), yet good-natured with it. His suggestions were greeted with increasing annoyance by Tim Kaufmann's Quince, while Tom Dale's Snug drew immediate audience sympathy with his meek voice and clear terror of Bottom's roaring. Briony Rawle was also excellent as Flute, a blokish lass who had to be continually reminded to raise her voice. The final performance of "Pyramus" was suitably riotous. Quince began his Prologue terrified, but grew in confidence until he was acting out the entire play with exaggerated gestures; Beth O'Sullivan's Starveling donned a hat with foliage, lamp and toy puppy attached, and mistakenly claimed that her thorn-bush was "my bush"; Laura Cassells' simple-minded Snout began each of her speeches with "erm, erm, erm" and delivered them with a stupid grin; Bottom forgot his lines regarding the chink, prompting his fellows to remind him with various obscene gestures; Snug and Flute managed to hurt each other during their "confrontation"; and Flute, who had begun acting properly while bent over Pyramus' 'body', grew so tired with the repeated reminders to pitch her voice higher that she rushed through her final lines in a second and died ceremoniously, falling so heavily across Bottom that she had to be physically thrown off him as he recovered.

Watching this were the nobles, who sat in the audience for the performance. Oberon and Titania were doubled with Theseus and Hippolyta, whose positions were reversed. In the play's opening moments, the newly-captured Hippolyta was seated under a bright spotlight as Theseus paced around her, positioning her in what he considered to be the most attractive positions. Her resentment and hatred of him were clear throughout the first scene, but appeared to have been resolved by the hunting party. Once married, however, Theseus became boorish; testy and drunk on wine, he provided fodder for laughter for Hippolyta and the lovers, but Hippolyta grew increasingly tired with his slurred remarks and insults, eventually escorting him off to bed.

The aspect of the production which worked least well was the lovers. Amy Tobin, playing Hermia, was a good two heads shorter than the others, allowing for some fun physical comedy, particularly as she beat up the two tall men, and she was by far the best of the group. In a reversal of the RSC's recent clothing conventions, Stewart Clarke's Lysander was formally suited and clearly the better-kept man, while Matt Goad's Demetrius wore leather jacket and slicked back hair, with which he was more concerned than his marital rights. While the production clearly tried to position Demetrius as having a bit of edge, Goad's softly-spoken performance failed to convey any real sense of threat. Anna Burnell's Helena, meanwhile, was posh, robotic in movements and motivated primarily by a rather pathetic petulance. While presumably played this way deliberately, it meant that this was a particularly unappealing Helena, severely limiting audience sympathy for the character; her petulance at her perceived mistreatment bordered on arrogance, the spoiled girl reacting badly to not being loved.

The lovers, however, all got better once both men were under the flower's spell. Lysander and Demetrius engaged in some very amusing slapstick comedy as the two tried to prevent each other from reaching Helena, involving some ludicrous wrestling positions. Even Helena grew more interesting as her desperation grew, her poise shattered as she stood on a platform attempting to keep out of the mens' reach. However, the production's focus on the supernatural characters came at the expense of the lovers; as well as rendering their story less interesting by comparison, the multiple crawling characters distracted somewhat from the actual plot when the two shared the stage at the same time. In this the performances of the lovers didn't help: too often, lines were rushed or babbled, the rhythm kept but the sense lost, particularly at the close of scenes.

Despite these final complaints, though, this was a riotous and thoroughly entertaining production that left me exhausted - there was so much going on, in the best possible sense, that any attempt to take it all in was doomed to failure. Rich, very funny and packed full of energy, the Dream continued to be justified in performance.

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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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