All entries for July 2009

July 19, 2009

Hamlet (Donmar West End) @ Wyndham's Theatre

I booked to see the Donmar's major new Hamlet some eighteen months ago, taking an unusual step for me by paying top whack to get front row stalls seats. The idea was that this would be an end of year treat, a production I was going to purely for fun. That was back when Kenneth Branagh was still scheduled to direct, but his replacement with the ever-reliable Michael Grandage didn't faze me. The main attraction, despite my ongoing ambivalence towards star casting, was of course Jude Law in the title role and, as the artwork had implied from the start, this was a production built entirely around the Dane.

Hamlet publicity art
Hamlet publicity art

This was a dark Hamlet, in the literal sense. Christopher Oram's imposing set of stone walls allowed narrow shafts of light to fall from high window slits, but the stage itself was resolutely dark, and peopled with a cast almost entirely clad in black. As the play progressed variations were introduced: the players wore stark white in contrast, Ophelia and Gertrude donned pale greys and whites in their madness and repentance respectively, and Hamlet himself changed into a grey t-shirt. The overall colourlessness was held until the final scene, where slightly predictably a deep red curtain was used as a backdrop for the final duel and murders. Happily, the visual monotony was relieved by Neil Austin's spectacular lighting design, which used bright, carefully angled lights to suggest a world of lightness and freedom just beyond the barred doors of Elsinore.

Law's Hamlet was the first I've seen to resist the temptation to play up the humour of the role. While several of his scenes were hugely funny (notably his description of Polonius being at supper with the worms, played with a careless cruelty behind his smiles), the overriding impression was one of intensity. Sweat dripping off his face from the get-go, hands gesturing wildly and a taut, strained quality to his voice, this Hamlet was a fractured and troubled man, tightly wound and about ready to snap.

Dominating the production, Law's performance was never less than rivetting. His bottled-up energy found its outlet in moments of pure emotion, such as his scream at Guildenstern's attempts to play him like a pipe and his wordless grief at the realisation that Ophelia was dead, restrained by Horatio. In soliloquy he was a man torn apart, delivering "To be or not to be" while huddling himself in the midst of a snowfall, or directing "How all occasions do inform against me" internally, his disgust at his own inaction dawning on him as he spoke. Despite the production's occasional attempts to iconicise the performance (such as his first appearance, crouched on the floor in a spotlight in a picture-perfect moment), Law's strength was the humanity he brought to the role, bringing a touch of reality to over-familiar moments: holding Yorick's skull became a nostalgic gulp of a scene, a dizzying moment of childish remembrance that juxtaposed in his mind with the grief and heady action of the moment.

While Grandage drew a wonderful performance out of Law, however, the rest of the production failed to live up to it. As with the director's Twelfth Night, Hamlet suffered from a lack of invention in the staging and performances that rendered it somewhat flat. The one truly inventive decision was to play the closet scene in what was effectively reverse-angle: a transparent curtain fell from the ceiling a foot or so from the downstage edge, which Polonius hid in front of while Gertrude and Hamlet met behind. As Polonius was killed, he grabbed at the curtain and pulled it down over him, allowing Hamlet to wrap him in it. This proved a welcome diversion from the rather static staging of the rest of the play. Repeatedly, groups of nameless courtiers entered, moved to their appointed positions, stood still to watch the current scene and then left at its conclusion, effectively providing living scenery - considering the pioneering work being done around the country on ensemble playing, one would have hoped that a more interesting use for the understudies could have been found. As it was, the larger court scenes became artificially rigid.

The staging of smaller scenes was more interesting, but let down by uninspired performances. Alex Waldmann's whiny Laertes was a particular disappointment, seeming more exasperated than angry with Claudius on his return to Denmark. His reaction to Ophelia's death was badly misjudged: taking "Too much of water hast thou, poor Ophelia/ And therefore I forbid my tears" as his cue, he instead managed to display an attitude of not caring, shrugging off the news with an oh-well-what-can-you-do tone. Matt Ryan's Horatio was decent but made no real impression, while Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (John MacMillan and Gwilym Lee) fared slightly better in performances that emphasised the characters' complicity, both becoming severe agents of Claudius in their later scenes. However, their troubled reactions as they were given the letter containing their orders for Hamlet's death spoke of more complexity, and a rare appearance for the English Ambassador provided a welcome reminder of their fates.

Penelope Wilton was perhaps the biggest disappointment, in a performance that extended to little more than hand-wringing for much of its length. Wilton was peculiarly awkward, leaving the character looking ill at ease in her roles as queen, wife and mother. The performance was redeemed somewhat by an effective, physical closet scene, culminating in Hamlet straddling his mother as she lay screaming on the floor, but even here Wilton was the passive partner and Law's energy directed the scene. Following this scene, her repentance was rather unsubtly shown through a couple of occasions where Claudius attempted to take her hand but was refused. Her death, drinking the cup, was entirely accidental, and her upstage death obscured by the rest of the action, leaving her demise anticlimactic.

Happily, not all the supporting performances were as weak. Kevin R McNally made for a strong, decisive Claudius: pragmatic in his wrongdoing, he managed his subjects effectively and invited loyalty from his followers: far more so than in other productions I've seen, one was aware of his abilities as a leader of men. While there was a suitably evil streak, most notably in his dying moments as he crawled across the floor towards Hamlet, snarling and reaching out towards him, McNally gave the role depth with a heartfelt praying scene, the king frustrated by the ineffectiveness of his prayers. In addition to Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and Laertes, Osric became one of Claudius' key henchmen. Ian Drysdale's performance turned the character into an Oswald, first appearing in place of Voltemand as a messenger and later carrying Claudius' errands around the court, before facing Hamlet directly as he encouraged him to take part in what he knew was a trap.

Ron Cook was, for the second time in a Grandage production this year, a highlight. His Polonius entered into a knowing relationship with the audience, making full use of his asides to draw laughs and lighten the tone, engaging our sympathies while at the same time allowing the character to look ridiculous. The character's self-assuredness made him the perfect foil for Hamlet's jibes, the sarcastic comments passing largely unnoticed, and his death marked a decisive turning point in the play's mood. Gugu Mbatha-Raw did some decent work as Ophelia, coming into her own during the madness scenes. Her lines here were sung beautifully, her madness becoming a carefully constructed delusion rather than random ravings.

This was a very full production, for example including all the Fortinbras scenes and both Gravediggers - although, in the latter case, the scene only became funny once David Burke's 1st Gravedigger entered into conversation with Hamlet. The fullness was welcome in the second act: where the first half of the play felt ponderous (at the halfway point, it had only reached the end of 3.1), the second half moved at a fair clip, with the short scenes driving the production forward. Despite my disappointment with some performances and with the production's general uninventiveness, this was a perfectly servicable piece of West End Shakespeare, serving it straight and unfussy. In many ways, it provided an experience akin to a musical: Hamlet's set pieces taking the place of the big musical numbers, with the rest of the production moving the play efficiently along in between. A great Hamlet, then, but a disappointing Hamlet.

July 12, 2009

The Comedy of Errors (RSC Young People's Shakespeare) @ The Courtyard Theatre

Since the launch of the "Stand Up For Shakespeare" manifesto a couple of years ago, the RSC has been remarkably tenacious in promoting its educational work alongside its core productions. While always an important part of the company's remit, the Education Department has recently stepped confidently into the limelight, with events such as the Regional Schools' Celebration sharing the main stage and being opened up to the general public.

The Comedy of Errors acted as the next logical step in raising the Education Department's profile, representing the most sustained collaboration yet between the Education and Production teams. Cross-cast with the main house production of As You Like It, Errors was designed specifically as a first-time introduction to Shakespeare, designed for children and primarily touring local schools. By granting it a few performances on the Courtyard stage as well, however, the company acknowledged the status of this production - this wasn't a fringe production, but an important part of the RSC's current work - and was rewarded with the wonderful sight of a Courtyard theatre packed out with families and children.

The involvement of Paul Hunter of Told by an Idiot served to help liberate the production from any traces of the RSC 'house style', and the cast in particular seemed to particularly relish the freedom to let their hair down. Christine Entwistle set the tone early on during Egeon's story: spraying the audience with water, adlibbing commentary on the action and joining in the dumbshow of the shipwreck as a cacklingly evil rock, Entwistle seemed intent on having as good a time as possible, and her infectious enthusiasm was shared by the rest of the cast. From Sophie Russell's tap-dancing Abbess to James Tucker playing the spoons, the right to be ridiculous was fully embraced in a chaotic mish-mash of ideas and jokes.

The small-scale set consisted of a single raised platform in the centre of the main stage, and some fairy lights draped from posts. Most of the ensemble stayed on stage throughout providing live musical accompaniment, giving the production a home-made, informal feel. Iain Johnstone's music was one of the production's main strengths; played on a variety of jazz and improvised instruments (the play opened with one of the Dromios using a toast rack as percussion), the cast provided both underscore and some big musical numbers, including the showstopping "The Man is Mad", sung by the Courtesan with a backing chorus of finger-clicking, shades-wearing crooners.

The opening scene was treated with a little more seriousness, David Carr's Egeon a suitably sober figure as he explained himself to James Traherne's Solinus. Even here, though, the prisoner was kept in a fridge and a hooded executioner asked Egeon to hold the axe while he grabbed a beer. Aware, perhaps, that the dual mistaken-identity plot is confusing enough for adults to follow, let alone a young audience, an accompanying dumbshow was played out in detail, dramatising the birth of both sets of twins and their later shipwreck. Gary Owen's edited text was notably efficient here, keeping only what was necessary in order to establish the characters and their separation, while simultaneously going all out for slapstick laughs.

The exposition out of the way, the chaos of the main action began. Owen's script was mostly Shakespearean, but with a good deal of freedom for adlibbing allowed. Thus James Tucker's Antipholus of Ephesus, entering with Balthazar and Angelo, chatted about his spoon collection and decided that the people sitting around in the Courtyard must be involved in some kind of protest, and Jonjo O'Neill's Dromio of Syracuse, when sent to Adriana for money, announced he was looking for the house with the see-through walls before turning to see Adriana and Luciana on the other side of the stage. This informal, self-aware approach was effective throughout in keeping the audience engaged as the play grew increasingly bizarre; whenever the play was in danger of becoming too weird, the cast simply referred back to the audience. The largest round of applause was reserved for a young boy drawn out of the audience as Dromio fled the hideous Nell; dressing the boy in his hat and jacket, Dromio placed him on stage to distract Nell while he made a quick getaway.

While the children in the audience laughed loudest at the physical comedy, including plenty of gratuitous water-squirting, the adults enjoyed the numerous parodies, from Nell's screams of "Dromio, Dromio, wherefore art thou Dromio?" to Traherne's moustachioed French inspector modelled on Poirot, from Luciana's obsession with Eastenders to a slow-motion gunfight (without guns!) as the Syracusan twins escaped into Emilia's abbey. At times there were almost too many jokes crammed in, with good lines being lost in the hysterical reaction to the previous incident. However, this was a committedly visual and physical production; the jokes were secondary to the slapstick comedy and inventive set pieces. One ingenious sequence, as the citizens explained the action of the previous five acts to Solinus, saw the entire play re-enacted as a puppet show with kitchen utensils; a simple argument between Antipholus and Angelo over the chain saw their increasingly exaggerated movements develop into a dance-off; and another argument between the Syracusan twins turned into a mimed tennis match, with another cast member providing voice-over umpire judgments.

The hilarity occasionally overwhelmed the narrative, though the adaptation did an effective job of keeping the play roughly on track. The trope of mistaken identity was memorably established early on: Antipholus of Ephesus revelled with the citizens, entertaining them with his magnificent spoon-playing, before leaving to their disappointment. As he left the stage, Antipholus of Syracuse entered at the other side. After a quick double-take, the citizens' frowns turned to cheers and they threw the spoons to the newcomer to continue their party. Antipholus, however, cheerfully thanked them for the present and popped them in his pocket, provoking a sulky response from his 'friends'. Vignettes like this ensured that the fundamentals of the plot were kept alive in the audience's minds, allowing the production to continue down its own chaotic path.

The venue itself wasn't always kind to the production. One scene called for the cast to chase each other around the auditorium, Keystone Cops-style, but the scale of the theatre and the barriers behind the seating meant that they actually disappeared out of view instead, leaving the stage bare instead of full of energy. Despite the fact that a production designed for school halls was being performed in a 1000-seat theatre, however, the cast did a stirling job of creating an intimate environment, directly engaging with their audience at every opportunity.

To attempt to give more of a sense of the play's humour would be to do it a disservice, for this was an intensely alive piece of theatre, richly detailed and relentlessly energetic. The performances were uniformly outstanding: generous, inventive, good-humoured and entirely shameless, in the best possible sense. If I had a complaint, it would have been that neither play nor production allowed for a great deal of depth beyond the simple entertainment value. As a family show, it was absolutely perfectly-pitched; as an education piece for taking into schools, it didn't seem to offer much of an opening for discussion or further exploration. However, as a first introduction to Shakespeare, it perfectly managed the task of demonstrating that the plays are there to be enjoyed by all ages and abilities, and in that sense this Errors was a resounding success.

This review originally appeared at Shakespeare Revue.

July 09, 2009

Press night cancellation

Disappointingly, the press night for the Globe's revival of Dominic Dromgoole's Love's Labour's Lost has been cancelled, due apparently to the fact that it's a very brief run and, obviously, a revival. I say disappointingly, because I had a press ticket for it and apparently the Globe offer complimentary pies, which I was quite looking forward to!

So, why has it been cancelled? It's particularly interesting because the 2007 production was an enormous critical success, and one would imagine that good reviews for the revival would therefore be a relatively safe bet.

Perhaps the Globe doesn't think it will get press interest? This is certainly possible; but then, the revival last summer of Greg Doran's A Midsummer Night's Dream was fully covered again; and, indeed, yet again when it transferred to the Novello.

Is it because they don't have confidence in the new cast? The actors haven't been announced yet, but perhaps the theatre are worried that they won't, considering the brevity of the run, be able to achieve the standard set by the original cast. There will certainly be some changes, as at least some of the original cast members are committed elsewhere.

Perhaps they're trying to downplay the prominence of this production: it is, after all, only on for a few performances, right at the tail end of the season. I can't imagine that being the case though - if it was, why put on the production at all?

Maybe the company don't actually WANT press attention. If you're rehearsing a full-scale production but only doing sixteen performances, do you feel ready to be seen by the press?

I'm guessing the most likely reason is financial. Rather than give away press tickets, they're planning to sell out every night. A press night in the middle of such a short run is inevitably disruptive, and rather pointless in terms of ticket sales: by the time the reviews are out, the production will be ready to close. Considering the reputation of the original production, it's presumably a guaranteed seller, and therefore the Globe consider it to be in the press' interest not to waste their time, and the accounts department's interests to sell every last ticket in order to justify putting on the production at all.

Whatever the reasons, it's something of a shame, but it'll be interesting to see what kind of coverage the production does end up receiving. Revivals are always in something of a difficult position, and I hope that ultimately this Love's Labour's Lost merits being dragged out of mothballs.

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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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