All entries for July 2008

July 13, 2008

Henry VI Part III: The Chaos @ The Door, Birmingham Repertory Theatre

It's not unprecedented to produce one part of the Henry VI trilogy in isolation, but it's an extremely rare occurrence and a financial gamble that few professional theatre companies can afford to take - who's going to come and see just one part of a trilogy? Yet for their latest production the Young REP have followed in the footsteps of Katie Mitchell's 1994 RSC production by putting on Henry VI Part III by itself, presenting the play as a contained piece that stands alone.

The Young REP, Birmingham Rep's youth theatre group, are made up of youngsters aged 8-18, but their productions benefit from the professional input of the Rep's costume, lighting, sound and props departments, as well as from adult direction and design. The result was a production of professional quality that was simply peopled by young actors. Taking place in the Door, the Rep's studio space, the play was staged in traverse with a small audience (no more than 80 total) on either side. At either end of the space scaffolded towers stretched up to the ceiling, decorated in tattered flags depicting red and white roses, corrugated iron and ropes. This England was already a wasted environment, after years of civil war. The playing space itself was a simple green mat, the field of battle.

Two things are striking about 3 Henry VI when seen in isolation. The first is the sheer pace of the action. Battle follows battle follows battle, with the bits in between simply providing the lead-up to the next fight. Politics and underhand tactics are all over by this point (save for those, of course, swirling in Richard's twisted mind), to be replaced by the brutality and desperation of open war. The second is the amount of major roles. York, Margaret, Henry, Warwick, Clifford, Edward, Prince Edward, Richard, George, all appeared almost equal in the amount of stage time and importance granted to them - making the play, of course, ideal for a young amateur company. These roles showcased the surprisingly impressive skills of the young actors which, in many cases, could be favourably compared to those of professionals.

Dominant from early in the play were Adam El Hagar's Warwick and Lorna Nickson-Brown's Clifford. Both stood behind their chosen sovereign in the opening scene, fighting their cause with voice and presence. El Hagar's voice was excellent: strong, confident and clear, he effortlessly projected the authority and danger of Warwick, casually dismissing his opponents with an offhand shrug and scornful inflection. Taller than most, he had only to look down on his opponents to establish his power. His threat was only matched by Nickson-Brown, who projected a very different kind of danger. With furrowed brow and dark stare, she tilted her head and looked up at her opponents with an almost feral snarl. Clothed differently to the rest of the Lancastrians, hers was a barely-controlled presence, a monster in the midst of Henry's loyal supporters.

Henry VI himself was portrayed as particularly weak in this production. York's justification of his claim was cut from the opening scene, making Henry's capitulation especially pathetic, a genuine crime against his son. Margaret, a very strong Jasmine Woodcock-Stewart, made her feelings known by slapping her husband hard across the face. Henry may have been hen-pecked, but he deserved no less. His terror at being forced by his son to draw his own sword was apparent, and he was marked out as weaker than any of his own soldiers. Margaret, on the other hand, only grew in strength throughout and provided some electric moments in performance, particularly in her truly hysterical grief at her son's murder. Standing after calling for Richard to kill her, she turned and looked back at the Prince's body before letting out a scream that sounded from the very depths of her soul, and it took three men to drag her, kicking and screaming, offstage. Beth Skidmore, one of the youngest actors in the cast, also gave a fine performance as the young Prince, particularly in defying the sons of York who towered over her. This was one of the benefits of having a child in the role, bringing out the fiery spirit and nerve of one so green.

Henry VI Part III: promotional image

Steven Turner's York was a leader of men rather than an out-and-out villain. Bearded and wearing a feathered cap, he looked every inch the king in the opening scene. Interestingly, Rutland entered with the rest of the soldiers and York's attention was more on his son than on the throne, placing a fake crown on his head before attending to the business at hand. Another effect of only seeing Part III was of course that York didn't last long, and his early death scene was one of the most inventive pieces of staging. The actor was attached to a winch coming down from the ceiling which raised him to just above ground level, and Margaret and Clifford swung him back and forth across the auditorium as they taunted him while the other Lancastrians leant against walls and laughed cruelly. His head (an amazing likeness, another reminder of the professional quality of the design) was paraded over the stage and then placed on one of the end towers, to remain there for the whole first act watching over the action.

The other set pieces in the first half were generally quite impressive and showed a great deal of imagination on the part of director Tim Ford. Drums were used to underscore much of the action, often being heard outside the auditorium long in advance of an army entering in order to convey the sense of dread as war approached. The first two battles were particularly well done - in the first, about ten drummers stood around the edges of the stage creating a deafening wall of noise, in the midst of which the rest of the cast clashed swords and moved, while a 'Spirit Child' (an eerily silent performance by the tiny Jane Newby) scattered red and white roses. For a second battle, drummers marched up and down the edges of the traverse while the soldiers struggled in slow motion in the centre. The effect was extraordinary, effectively evoking the chaos and confusion of war.

However, the set pieces started to lose their invention in the second act. The play had borrowed the subtitle The Chaos from the RSC's recent production, and its indebtedness to that version was apparent throughout, for example in the Spirit Child who entered after every death to escort the body offstage, and the Son and his dead Father swapping places so they mourned over each other. These elements worked well, but then in the second act the production started plagiarising more obviously. The RSC's iconic image of Henry VI standing in a spotlight as white feathers fell from above, gradually turning into red feathers, was copied exactly for no apparent reason, and the ending was also copied exactly - Richard was left onstage with Edward's baby, cradling it as music built to a crescendo and then suddenly stopped, the stage blacking out just as he said "Now...". Considering the play was being performed in isolation without going on to Richard III, and the fact that the audience were family and friends rather than Shakespeare enthusiasts, this ending met with no reaction whereas in Stratford it brought the house down. These borrowings were disappointing after the excellent - and more original - first half; it felt almost as if the production had lost confidence in its own ideas and had resorted to copying the RSC, whereas it had in fact been doing an excellent job at distinguishing itself.

The aforementioned Richard, played by Grace Barrington (it was interesting, hopefully coincidental, that the two biggest monsters of the play, Clifford and Richard, were played by actresses), was a highlight throughout. Hunchbacked and limping, she spoke with a leering cackle that was reminiscent of the Wicked Witch of the West. A pantomimic villain, Barrington played up to the audience while also bringing elements of pathos to the role, particularly in the soliloquy that closed Act 1, where among other things she tore off her glove to reveal her withered hand and her wig to reveal a withered scalp. This latter was particularly effective, as the wigwork was so expert that the audience hadn't realised it wasn't her real hair. Her sick fascination with gore and violence was obvious throughout, even putting Clifford's severed tongue into her mouth and sticking it out at her brothers. Her role was also strengthed in relation to Henry's in the tower. Henry's soliloquy was cut so that the scene began with her entrance, and the scene became a consolidation of her evil and evil intent. Henry's death, just like his presence in the rest of the production, was incidental - the play was about the chaos, not about the King.

The play retained most of the action and text of the play, but there were moments of clever editing and conflating by Ford that served to streamline the action. One of the most dramatic changes cut the entrance of the troops to Warwick's army. Instead, the battle saw Warwick captured relatively unscathed by Richard and Edward. As he and they argued, George entered and rejoined his brothers in a more intimate reunion, which was then sealed as the three stabbed Warwick brutally to death. Another key change was at the death of Prince Edward. Instead of capturing the Prince and Queen, the two armies were instead facing each other on equal terms with swords drawn. As the Prince verbally assaulted his opponents, Edward lost patience, pulled the young man over and stabbed him in full view of everyone. The Lancastrian soldiers, still holding out their swords, quailed and fled before this scene of unfettered brutality while Margaret screamed. While rather unlikely, this change served to show the now-unshakable power of the Yorkists, their dogged committment to victory at any cost against which no army could stand.

This was, by and large, a highly interesting production that clearly demonstrated the effectiveness of the play as a stand-alone piece of theatre. Apart from needing a bit more confidence in its own ability without having to borrow from the RSC, this was an excellent piece of amateur Shakespeare, with some startling performances from a young cast and a great deal of invention. If nothing else, it's a reminder of the importance of giving amateur and youth groups the attention they so richly deserve.

This review originally appeared at Shakespeare Revue.

July 07, 2008


And, in further casting news, Natalie Tena will apparently be playing Desdemona to Patrice Naiambana's Othello in the RSC's spring production. Tena's probably best known for playing Tonks in the last Harry Potter film, but she also turned up in Kneehigh's Nights at the Circus. Very interesting casting, certainly not playing to type (as the picture below partly demonstrates), so could be a fun collaboration!

Natalie Tena
Natalie Tena as Fevvers in Kneehigh's Nights at the Circus

Julian Bleach in Oliver!

You have to scroll down this link a bit to find it, but I'm extremely thrilled to learn that the wonderful Julian Bleach is going to be part of the cast for Cameron Mackintosh's new production of Oliver!as Mr. Sowerberry. Long-time readers will remember that he was my absolute favourite thing in the RSC's Complete Works Festival on account of his tremendous Ariel in The Tempest. Factor in Rowan Atkinson as Fagin and, despite my hatred for I'd Do Anything, I might actually have to go and see this!

July 04, 2008


Announcements are coming thick and fast now for new productions. Here's just a sample of what's in the offing, all stuff I haven't booked for yet:

The Winter's Tale @ The Old Vic directed by Sam Mendes, featuring Simon Russell Beale, Sinead Cusack and Ethan Hawke. Also paired with Tom Stoppard's new translation of The Cherry Orchard.

The Winter's Tale tour: not a new announcement, but I do hope to catch this Globe Touring production at some point, probably in Oxford.

Macbeth: Who Is That Bloodied Man? @ The National: last year's Edinburgh smash from Teatr Biuro Podrozy, billed as "Macbeth on Stilts". On the bank of the Thames on an August evening, sounds fab.

Waiting for Godot @ The Theatre Royal Haymarket: Rumours abound of a new production directed by Jonathan Kent, starring Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart.

The Brothers Size @ Birmingham Rep: Our new playwright-in-residence, Tarrell McCraney, read some of his biggest hit to us the other week, and it sounds incredible.

Knock Against my Heart @ Birmingham Rep: a retelling of The Tempest in collaboration with Nos do Morro.

Love's Labour's Lost @ The Rose Theatre Kingston directed by Peter Hall.

July 03, 2008

Regional Schools Celebration @ The Courtyard Theatre

On Monday, the Courtyard Theatre hosted the Regional Schools Celebration, a culmination of sorts of the first phase of the RSC's Stand Up for Shakespeare campaign. Featuring a full programme of nine 25 minute playlets by school groups ranging from primary to 6th form, interspersed with awards ceremonies and talking heads, the event was a large-scale public celebration of the work the RSC are doing in schools across the country.

Stand Up for Shakespeare

I wasn't going to write a blog about this event, much less a review, as I thought it would be inappropriate given the nature of the event. However, I haven't been able to get some of the playlets out of my head. The ideas and work that went into them were in several cases extremely interesting, and the work deserved attention (as Michael Coveneyagrees on his blog). Sadly I was only able to stay for the morning, but I thought I would include a breakdown of what I saw as, particularly when you consider the age of the kids, there was stuff here that I would really like to remember.

The day itself was compered by Hardeep Singh Kohli, with contributions in the morning from both Michael Boyd and Michelle Gomez - a nice gesture, having the Artistic Director and current leading actor in attendance. Hardeep himself did a solid job of hosting, with a whole selection of terrible puns that were primarily designed to cover the changes between casts. Nonetheless, he seemed to have a genuine enthusiasm for the event, and the atmosphere in the Courtyard was good throughout.

Hardeep Singh Kohli
Hardeep Singh Kohli

Julius Caesar by Queen's Park Primary, West Kilburn, London

The first show began with the theatre being plunged into darkness. A loud epic soundtrack boomed out, while the children tiptoed onto the stage from various sides, shining torches in their faces and onto the audience before gathering in the centre and becoming the conspirators of Caesar. Seeing school drama benefit from the technical capabilities of the RSC's main house was one of the pleasures of the day, though this was the only production to achieve such a startling effect from it. The production tapped into ideas both of surveillance and of street violence; opening with the conspirators and the murder, two 'newsreaders' (stood on the side balconies) then took over the reporting of the event through a series of news-style flashbacks and vox pops with dissatisfied Romans. A focus on the gullible doggedness of the crowd to believe whoever was talking made the orations scene particularly interesting, the crowd caring passionately about the last thing that was spoken. To this end, the playlet captured this school's fascination with the power of propaganda, which ultimately destroyed everyone. A fascinating insight into the contemporary resonances which the staff and students had found in the play, and also a particularly impressive performance from the young girl playing Brutus. Throughout the day I was impressed at how well the young people held the Courtyard stage, but Brutus in this play was superb, clear and powerful all the way.

Henry V - In Love and War by Fred Longworth School, Atherton, Manchester

The most sophisticated of the five plays, and practically deserving of a full review of its own. Fred Longworth's retelling of Henry V was an innovative and fascinating one that brought several original ideas to the text. It had been trimmed down from an hour long, but in this 25 minute version we caught a glimpse of the excellent work that had gone into it. Taking a slant that focussed on issues of love and marriage, this production centred Katherine, playing her scenes almost in full. Adding in dialogue from Romeo and Juliet, a new narrative was created that saw the King of France commanding his daughter to prepare for marriage with Henry in case of defeat, much to her disgust and panic. To this end, in a genius scene, her French lesson became a comically violent preparation, with her miming how she was going to use her fingers, nails and 'bilbows' to punch, scratch, poke and gut her 'enemy'. In the final scene, in another excellent decision, Henry mixed Shakespearean dialogue with contemporary phrases to emphasise the 'plainness' of his speech, eventually winning her over through her directness. The Chorus was played by three young actresses who were all extremely articulate verse-speakers, splitting the lines between them and throwing a tennis ball to various actors in order to start the scenes. I've heard good Choruses before, but for some reason the strong Manc accents worked perfectly with the verse, and were definitely the day's best vocal performances. I have no hesitation in saying that, even as abbreviated as it was, this was better than some of, say, the drama school performances in the Complete Works. Excellent work.

Romeo and Juliet - Friendship Never Dies by Churchill Gardens Primary, Westminster, London

This version of Romeo, performed by a group of very young children, drew its power from the knowledge that the children go to school in a particularly rough part of East London (according to Hardeep, anyway) that suffers badly from knife and gang culture. Almost entirely ignoring the romance aspects of the play, this production stripped Romeo down to its streetfighting, finding in it a message about retribution and the culture of respect that the children, despite their age, clearly knew all too well. Here, all the children came on stage to shout the play's early lines at each other in staged violence, while at the Capulet's Ball they danced to modern R&B (the guest list that Peter carried included such names as Beyonce and Rhiannon). After the ball, though, the narrative interestingly switched to Tybalt, stewing in his bedroom at the insult and disrespect that Romeo had paid him by coming to the party. Other actors voiced his thoughts while he paced back and forth. The play then skipped forward to the climactic duel, with Tybalt killing Mercutio and Romeo Tybalt, with plenty of focus on the young Romeo's decision to take his knife and continue the cycle of violence. The play's closing image, then, was of the Prince ordering Romeo to be dragged off, screaming, to prison while Juliet tried to follow him and was held back. No tragic deaths here, simply the inevitable - and very modern - consequences of a life of violence. Shocking in its bleakness and in the young children's grasp of matters of life and death, this was both disturbing and vital, Shakespeare used for exploring issues of monumental impact.

Mr Mac and the Ruler Army by Milton Abbot Primary, Devon

The final two productions didn't have the same impact, but were still entertaining and provided good comedy value. Milton Abbot School translated Macbeth to a primary school, "Dunsin Lane", with Mr. Duncan as the Headmaster, Mr. Mack and Mrs. Banks as teachers and a chorus of garishly made-up dinnerladies as the witches. The children obviously had great fun contemporising the play, with Duncan's murder becoming his expulsion for helping children cheat (deviously engineered by Mack), while Mack's tyranny was shown through his introduction of a 12 hour schoolday and no playtime. The contemporising eventually fell apart (Mr. Duff and Mr. Mack settled their differences through, erm, a sword fight!),  but it remained an entertaining and often funny take on Macbeth.

Supernatural in Shakespeare by Fred Nicholson School, Norfolk

By far the most bizarre of the morning's productions, Fred Nicholson (a school with a particular focus on students with special needs) took the Mechanicals of A Midsummer Night's Dream and brought them onto the Jeremy Kyle Show in an effort to resolve the differences and squabbles caused by Bottom always taking the best parts for himself. This was a highly unusual idea, of course, but one which allowed them to explore ideas of bullying in a contemporary context. Heavily reliant on audience participation, the boys did a good job of encouraging audience participation through cheering and booing. Through the middle of this skipped Puck, who played tricks on the young actors throughout. Regardless of the content, it was clear that a great deal of work and creative thought had gone into this playlet and, as with all the groups performing, the students seemed to have developed themselves through the act of rehearsing and performing as well as learning their Shakespeare, and that was the most important thing.

I couldn't stay for the afternoon, but I was sorry to leave. I won't lie, I expected that the day would be something of a chore, but I was very pleased to be proved wrong. The work done by the young people was eminently watchable and I was surprised at how enjoyable the day was. I'm not the right person to comment on the RSC's education strategy, on the methodologies being employed or the manifesto that "Stand Up for Shakespeare" presents, but the day showed a large group of children who had got a great deal out of exploring Shakespeare practically, and that can't be bad.

July 02, 2008

Giselle @ Birmingham Hippodrome and Brief Encounter @ The Cinema Haymarket

Two shows this weekend just gone, neither of which I'm going to do full reviews of. Partly this is because they were a birthday present for my partner, and I don't want to distract from a lovely weekend, and partly because I don't have the appropriate vocabulary to review the first and I'd already seen the second. However, a quick mention of both of them for the records doesn't seem out of order.

First up was Birmingham Royal Ballet's Giselle at the Hippodrome. This was, in point of fact, my first professional ballet, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Funnily enough, considering that I was coming from a theatre background, it was actually the non-narrative sections I got the most out of, when the dancers were just dancing. The dancers representing the departed souls who haunted the graveyard where Giselle was buried in the second half were absolutely superb, creating a mesmerising display of the supernatural, and the desperate dancing of our hero Albrecht with the ghost of his lover was particularly moving. The whole thing was very well done, and there was plenty to keep the Saturday matinee audience entertained, from the fabulous folk-ballet in the first half to the appearance of live dogs and a huge horse with a hunting party. While it's hardly converted me from theatre (the more narrative sequences, where they communicated via dumb-show and sign-language, were a little frustrating!), I'm pleased to have finally seen a decent ballet and must make a mental note to head over to the BRB more often.

This was followed on Sunday by a trip to London for Kneehigh's Brief Encounter, which I originally reviewed here when it previewed at Birmingham Rep. It was as excellent as I remembered, despite a couple of changes - Amanda Lawrence has moved on (though her replacement is more than capable) and Stanley's trampoline removed. The venue added a huge deal to the production though - taking place in the old Cinema Haymarket (where the film originally premiered), it gave an unsettlingly genuine feel to those scenes where Laura and Alec visited the cinema, as well as giving the film segments a fitting home. The production was only scheduled to run for four weeks when it started there, so the fact it's currently booking into the autumn is testament to how good a production they've pulled together. It'll be interesting to see how Kneehigh respond to this kind of playing - and the attention it brings them - but if nothing else it should bankroll their projects for the next few years...

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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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