All entries for August 2006
August 31, 2006
I’d be lying to say that this is one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays. When Nos do Morro were invited to do a play in the Complete Works Festival, the only two left were ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona’ and ‘King John’- and to them, there wasn’t even a choice to make. So, the RSC quite bravely mounted a full-scale production of it for the Swan, featuring the applauded cast of ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ and ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Lots of big names, including Tamsin Greig, Joseph Millson, Sorcha Cusack, Patrick Robinson and, for this play only, associate artist Richard McCabe.
The gambit paid off, as this is an excellent ‘John’ that’s received good reviews and even filled the house on a Thursday afternoon. A simple but elegant design, dominated by two enormous gates that open and shut to figure the court or the city walls, allowed the cast plenty of room to take over, and the result was a very enjoyable three hours.
This was the first Shakespeare play I saw at the Swan, about six years ago- and while I don’t remember much of it, two things still stick with me- the shocking death of Arthur, and the very funny Bastard. Both elements still stuck out strongly today. Ralph Davis’ Arthur balanced precariously on the railings at the very top of the theatre, before falling forward with a piercing scream and a blackout, lifting a moment later to reveal him writhing on the stage below. Just as powerful was Joseph Millson’s turn as the Bastard, taking his own excellent performance as Benedick and building on it to create a Bastard with a love of the macabre (licking the blood of the dead Austria’s severed head) and true sense of showmanship.
The stage belonged to Richard McCabe as the titular monarch, though. He gave one of Shakespeare’s least sympathetic monarchs an impressive range- a mummy’s boy in the early scenes, standing awkwardly about making faces at Arthur, and a truly troubled man in the later scenes, holding his head and sobbing as he ran from the Bastard, hiding behind his own throne. At times he seemed truly kingly, at times his usurpation was all too obvious. While never truly rooting for him as monarch, we also pitied him, and certainly the petulant Dauphin didn’t seem any better a replacement.
This isn’t a woman’s play, most of the female characters being dead or disappeared by the start of the second act, but Tamsin Greig’s Beatrice was very good, and Morven Christie as Blanche was supremely disdainful at the Dauphin’s wooing (made funnier when remembering the same two actors as Romeo and Juliet, and with the knowledge of a real-life relationship between the two!). Sorcha Cusack gave a more balanced than usual portayal of Queen Eleanor too- ruthlessly ambitious, but also tender of the young Arthur, shown as she walked off in scorn.
A beautiful choral score added to the atmosphere, along with very effective use of lighting (the Bastard and Hubert shared one scene in almost pitch-darkness). Fast, funny and ultimately very affecting, hopefully this production will have positively affected a lot of people’s opinions of ‘King John’. It will never be the greatest of the histories, but there is a very enjoyable play in there, which Josie Rourke has fully brought out.
August 29, 2006
I arrived at Holy Trinity Church tonight and was stopped by a passer–by who asked me if they regularly put on plays at the church, to which I replied that it was a one–off for AandBC, the visiting company. This gent was quite disapproving of the use of a church for theatre, and I do understand where he was coming from. The church and theatre have a long–standing relationship though, for better and worse, and tonight Holy Trinity became the leading player in an inspired take on 'Henry VIII'.
This is one of the last and least–performed of Shakespeare's plays, a history without any of the violence or feuding that gives the earlier histories colour. 'Henry VIII' is a play of conversations and processions, of political maneuvering and debates about policy. Wordy and action–free, it doesn't lend itself as well as others to the modern stage, and has even been referred to as a dramatic poem, rather than a play. Also, a great deal of it is by John Fletcher, meaning it's achieved far less attention.
In Holy Trinity, though, the play came into its own. The huge great doors of the main area formed a stately entrance door to outside, where fireworks were set off that shone through the stained glass windows. The enormous pipe organ provided stately and triumphant music, joined at the curtain call by the chiming of the church bells. As characters died, the lights over the distant altar rose and the dying moved in slow procession towards it, approaching heaven. And, in the finale, the future Queen Elizabeth was baptised in the church's ancient stone font.
The atmosphere was pretty electric. Two sections of tiered seating stretched half the length of the church, the stage being the long thin strip between the two. The actors were close enough that I can tell you Henry had blue eyes with a slight hint of grey around the irises. The intimacy of the action combined with the imposing grandeur of the church made for a truly memorable experience.
It wasn't all about the venue, though. Antony Byrne in particular excelled as a fully–rounded Henry VIII, who spent most of the first act in hunting gear or barefoot. Contrary to popular image, here was a Henry who cared about his supporters, but was fearsome to those who opposed him. He was also fun–loving and cracked jokes, giving a camp 'Here' to his formal summons and cackling 'Mint sauce' at one of the revellers dressed as a sheep. While obviously misled by the Cardinal about his Queen, he was an admirable King whose strength dominated the play even when he wasn't present.
Elsewhere, Cardinal Wolsey was a very short man whose manipulations were almost forgiven as the first act ended with him steadying himself against the font as his whole world crumbled around him. Katherine held herself steady throughout her troubles, until her final entrance when she was helped in by the dim flicker of candlelight, and fainted on the floor before the angels. The most powerful moment came as Buckingham prepared for his execution, as he stood trembling while choric voices echoed from the eaves.
The show was completely stolen, though, by a real tiny baby standing for Princess Elizabeth at her christening– despite the wonderfully delivered predictions about her future, almost all eyes were fixed on the impeccably–behaved little girl as she stretched her arms out towards her maid. Gooey, I know, but I defy anyone at our end of the rows to have taken their eyes off her– she was so cute!
This was one of the plays I was most excited to see, partly for its rarity in performance and partly for the location– and I enjoyed it. AandBC specialise in location–specific theatre, and here they truly used their environment to its full potential, while giving a lively and intelligent reading of an oft–overlooked play.
August 28, 2006
Just a few extra notes about the post–show talk from yesterday's performance.
Much of the start of the talk was devoted to the two groups telling each other how much they meant to each other. While admittedly a little cringy in places, it was actually quite moving, particularly listening to how the city kids from Gallery 37 had been inspired by the Brazillian artists. The director, Guti Fraga, spoke at great length about the use of theatre as a weapon against oppression and as a way of uniting across international boundaries– the kind of stuff you often see on education websites. To see the two groups working together and hugging at the end, though, seemed to bring it to life. It's the kind of collaboration that really makes a difference to the people involved, and that certainly came across.
Unlike at 'The Two Noble Kinsmen', the questions from the audience were very interesting and well–considered, and even the token comedy questions ("Are your actors, like, weightlifters?") were answered seriously and gave us a great insight into the theatre practices of the Rio shanty towns (most of the actors were professionally involved in sport or dance as well as theatre).
There was some good–natured jibing at Deborah Shaw, who hosted the talk– Fraga, when asked why they'd chosen 'Two Gentlemen', commented that they'd only been given a choice of that or 'King John' (laughter). They'd also had restrictions put on them in terms of set and timing, hence only a single performance of the play. Despite this, though, it came out that Deborah had become far more personally involved in the production than had originally been planned, to the point of working with the Gallery 37 youngsters for a fortnight before Nos Do Morro arrived, and the project certainly had that community feel to it.
There was much talk of the limited rehearsal time and the achievement in putting together something so good so quickly. The only disappointment I came away with from the talk was one young girl's comment on her disgust at Valentine's forgiveness of Proteus. While obviously a completely valid opinion on one of the most difficult moments in Shakespeare, this was a moment that had apparently caused a lot of discussion in the rehearsal room, and yet was ultimately brushed over onstage without being tackled. That seemed to me a really wasted opportunity– here were a group of young actors who were taking on the issue of forgiving an attempted rape, with no academic training in the niceties of friendship drama, and I would have LOVED to see Gallery 37 really tackle the moment and give us their opinion of it. I wouldn't have noticed, but their opinions were so clear in the post–show talk that I thought it was a real shame they weren't reproduced onstage.
The other main highlight of the talk was Cicely Barry, the RSC voice coach who's gone out to Brazil every year for the last 15 or so, making an appearance and talking about the power of language to make a difference. She obviously commanded enormous respect from both groups, and her short talk was again very interesting.
It seems unfair to compare this show to the large–scale productions by the RSC, or the American or Japanese companies. It comes from a completely different theatrical tradition, where money is far tighter. The purpose of the two groups is to bring in young people– amazingly, Nos do Morro has over 1800 young members!– off the streets, away from drugs and violence, and help them discover something more worthwhile in life. And that's what this talk showed, how the work of these companies has made a difference in lives.
In many ways, you can say that that's the most important thing of all.
August 27, 2006
I'd been looking forward to this play as one of the more unusual productions– a Brazillian community theatre group, Nos do Morro, joining forces with a Birmingham urban youth project, Gallery 37.
It was certainly very good– a young and energetic cast really put their hearts and souls into it. The large Chorus became walls and statues around which the main action took place, Crab (a human actor) threw himself around the stage, the young Birmingham actors rapped and sang from the balconies and the whole thing was done in two hours flat.
This was a very musical adaptation, with big song and dance numbers bridging the gaps and replacing some of the dialogue– Valentine and Thurio's sparring of wit, for example, became a sing–off in a makeshift ring. The Brazillian actors spoke Portugese while the midlanders sang in English, but the two languages meshed well and the two groups had clearly enjoyed working together.
Where this play suffered– and this is by no means their fault– was in the setting. In many ways, I would have rather seen this in the Dell, or an outdoor space, as I think it would have worked so well in the less formal atmosphere, where the actors (who interacted with the audience throughout) could have really let themselves go. On the Courtyard stage, on the set of the 'Henry VI' trilogy, it almost seemed to reinforce the lack of rehearsal time (the companies had known each other for thirteen days) and budget.
However, I thought this was a fantastic production, and completely stood by itself. It seems patronising to talk about, "Seeing as it's a community group from deprived areas", or, "considering they only had four week's rehearsal" etc. The fact is, this was a wonderful piece in its own right and far more full of life than several considerably more well–off companies. I think the audience generally agreed, and a semi–standing ovation at the end of the performance was well–earned.
There were a few negatives– the Gallery 37 singing couldn't be heard over the maturer voices of Nos do Morro, (even when right next to them, as I was in the front row) and some of the movement pieces, while very nice to look at, didn't seem to have much purpose other than to look pretty, and thus served as a distraction. Also, it wasn't advertised before the performance that the production would be in
Portugese with surtitles, which I think was what prompted a few early walkouts.
These were minor points, though. This company had come from one of the roughest shanty towns in Brazil, teamed up with a few Birmingham youths in an outreach theatre group and created something in just a couple of weeks that stood up against many of the better–funded professional productions I've seen recently. In the post–show talk, we watched the Birmingham teenagers express their appreciation and admiration for the Brazillians, a respect that was built despite neither group speaking the other's language. As a community project, even for the actors, this had clearly achieved its purpose, and the audience equally enjoyed themselves.
I really hope this gets a chance to be performed outside of a formal theatre space. It was far too big for the Fringe Festival, but shared many characteristics with the CAPITAL play I saw there the other week, and I do believe it would work well in a community setting. Utterly fascinating, and I'm very glad I got the chance to see what I think is the only South American contribution to the festival.
August 22, 2006
I cracked today.
I've never joined the RSC, purely because I spend so much on tickets that I didn't think membership could offer me anything new! However, booking for the final two productions in the Festival, 'King Lear' and 'As You Like It' has already opened for members, and even at this early stage the shows are almost full.
So, today I signed up to be an associate member of the RSC, purely so I can get my tickets booked and be sure of seats. Luckily, because they hold seats for 16–25 year olds (25 in the Swan and 50 in the Courtyard), I still have a good chance. It's a shame though– seeing so many empty seats at the spectacular 'Henry VI' trilogy, but to hear that 'King Lear' is almost sold out– again, big names (this time, Ian McKellen) sell shows. It should be spectacular though!
August 21, 2006
I’m not in Stratford today, which is starting to seem like a relatively rare occurrence!
I thought I’d quickly mention another aspect of the Complete Works Festival that ended yesterday- The Film Festival. A huge outdoor screen has been set up in Stratford for the last three weekends, showing six Shakespeare films as an nod to a major aspect of contemporary Shakespearean performance.
I didn’t go to any of the screenings, mostly because they happen at 9pm and it’s impossible to get back home afterwards, but also because I have an intimidatingly extensive Shakespeare film collection- 73 of them! (I actually can’t believe that when I say it, so just recounted them). I love Shakespeare on film, and it’s been a big part of my academic work so far. They range from classics by Laurence Olivier and Orson Welles to modern takes by Kenneth Branagh and Baz Lurhmann, Japanese films by Kurosawa, the entire BBC Shakespeare collection and contemporary remakes of plays such as ‘My Own Private Idaho’ and ‘Ten Things I Hate About You’. There are some truly great films out there, and the Festival has shown some of the best.
ROMEO + JULIET directed by Baz Lurhmann
Everyone knows this! Shakespeare for the ‘MTV generation’, a sexy and fast-paced movie, so much in the general consciousness that GCSE students, asked how Romeo dies, said, “He drowned on the Titanic”.
HENRY V directed by Laurence Olivier
The classic, made to celebrate a moment of national pride and patriotism as Britain fought in World War II.
FORBIDDEN PLANET directed by Fred McLeod Wilcox
A sci-fi remake of ‘The Tempest’, with the iconic Robbie The Robot taking the part of Ariel.
THE MERCHANT OF VENICE directed by Michael Radford
A recent interpretation of the film, set in period Venice and featuring Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons and Joseph Fiennes.
A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM directed by William Dieterle and Mac Reinhardt
A film version of Reinhardt’s seminal stage production, with a heavy ballet slant and beautiful choreography.
MACBETH directed by Roman Polanski
A gory production, one of the most famous ‘Macbeth’s. And bizarrely funded by Playboy magazine and produced by Hugh Heffner!
I’m disappointed I didn’t get to attend any of the screenings, as they sounded like fun events, with even a pig roast in the theatre gardens! Did anyone out there get to go?
August 20, 2006
It’s been a busy week for me in Stratford- ‘2 Henry VI’ and ‘Capulets and Montagues’ on Wednesday, long public transport nightmare trip on Friday, ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’ yesterday and today, my second viewing of ‘3 Henry VI’.
I’m quite glad I decided to see the Henries individually as well as the whole day event- they’re very full productions, and I think to fully appreciate all the subtleties and clever decisions it’s far better to see them seperately and enjoy them as individual plays.
So, ‘3 Henry VI’. First and foremost, this was Richard of Gloucester’s play. Even though he doesn’t take centre-stage until ‘Richard III’, Jonathan Slinger held the audience’s main attention throughout this play, from his first entrance wearing an enemy’s skinned face over his own to the finale where he cradled his brother’s new baby and tantatalisingly said, “Now…”, anticipating the opening lines of the next play. His soliloquy announcing his lust for the crown ended the first act, and already he was manipulating the action to his own purposes. Slinger gave a mesmerising performance, full of bitterness and cunning, and truly owned the play.
There was, of course, a lot more action to get out of the way first, and Boyd’s ghosts once more played a major part- this time, it was the ghost of York, persuading Clarence to rejoin his brothers and distracting Warwick in time for Richard to gut him. The Talbots appeared for the third play in a row, this time as the Son and Father who had killed their family members in civil war.
Chuk Iwuji’s Henry was again wonderful, and watching him progress has been one of the highlights of the trilogy- from youthful innocence in Part I to an assertive and passionate young man struggling with corruption in Part II to a religious and world-weary broken man in Part III. Shouted down when he tried to speak, Henry became the only man to truly see what was going on, wandering through the battles as if in a nightmare, watching the death and waiting calmly for his own, exceptionally bloody, one.
Lacking the big comic set pieces of the French court or Cade’s rebellion, this was an altogether more serious companion to the other two plays, and while still fantastic, it is in many ways a long catalogue of deaths, both gory and symbolic. Boyd’s direction still kept it fresh though, raining red and white feathers down on the lost king, trailing blood across the stage behind Edward IV’s clock and giving Richard of Gloucester a tantalising glimpse of Rutland, his future nemesis. Fast-paced and bloody, it’s a great piece by itself and a phenomenal conclusion to what may be the RSC’s towering achievement this season. It received a fully-deserved standing ovation, and Boyd’s cheeky reminder in Richard’s final word that the fourth part is following next year only served to whet our appetites.
I’m seeing them once more in a single day, in September, and I’m very excited to be doing so- these are great productions, and I completely urge people to go and see them, especially while they’re still offering free tickets to under-30s.
Just as some fun before I go to sleep, thinking about my favourite ten individual performances of the festival so far. In order, then, that I saw them in…..
Harriet Walter as Cleopatra
There's always something wonderful about seeing one of the genuine greats, and Harriet Walter gave an absolutely rivetting performance as the Egyptian queen. It seems unfair not to mention Patrick Stewart, as the two held the stage together, but Walter's Cleopatra had a vulnerability and peevishness about her that made the performance unforgettable.
Julia Jentsch as Desdemona
The most daring Desdemona I've ever seen– a young girl in pumps and short skirts who was discovering her sexuality for the first time, and clung to Othello as both daughter and lover. Even though in German, this performance spoke volumes about a character often written off as a type, and her final moments where she found the resolve to threaten to leave Othello and even swear at him made the character new and vital.
Morven Christie as Hero
'Much Ado' was full of wonderful performances, and credit must go to Tamsin Greig and Joseph Millson as a fantastic Beatrice and Benedick, but Morven Christie was the revelation to me– her Hero was knowing and sassy, batting her eyelids to manipulate the men around her and showing a level of self–possession not normally associated with the relatively mute heroine. Lively and entertaining, you even got the impression she might be a match for her more formidable cousin.
Jonny Weir as Don John
A small role, but sometimes these can be the best. Weir's Don John was a classic Latin melancholic, skulking in the shadows and striking despairing poses, holding a cigarette as if it was the only thing left in his world. His presence was tremendous, and his final appearance heading over the hills, holding a rifle high, at once disturbing and uplifting.
Shun Oguri as Aaron
In a stylised production, Oguri looked like he'd stepped straight out of an anime cartoon, with bare tattooed chest and feral leaps giving him an atmosphere of surreality. His eyes spoke of evil, and his restraint amidst the histrionics was mesmerising– this was a man of real power.
Evgeny Pisarev as Feste
At once gloriously camp and strangely sad, Pisarev's Feste was a singer and entertainer first and foremost. Deeply lonely, he tried to form bonds with other characters but found himself naturally drawn to the end in a position of commentary. A joyful sadness followed him around, and his final dance with Antonio seemed a fitting end to his story.
Jonathan Slinger as Hume
Simply one of the best actors currently at the RSC– but while his Bastard of Orleans was great, and his Richard of Gloucester promises wonderful things for 'Richard III', it was his brief appearance as Hume that hit home. Shaking slightly, fingering his payment and hesitating as his mind worked overtime, his single soliloquy was utterly gripping and a phenomenal piece of acting, giving a minor character an entire story through a few simple mannerisms.
John Mackay as Jack Cade
Bendy, agile, flexible and lively, Mackay's Jack Cade fused athleticism, campness and a veiled air of menace, becoming both a wonderful comic character and a threatening rebel. His almost lazy way of speaking resounded brilliantly, and his holding of court from a swinging trapeze was inspired. Mackay is a fantastic swaggerer, and he used it to great effect here.
Julian Bleach as Ariel
Utterly terrifying, this Ariel wandered the stage slowly in black robes and whitened face, holding an hourglass as his hours counted down. Full of power, and a real threat to Prospero, even just his head peeping over a bin could change the entire mood of a scene. A performance of powerful restraint and incredible self–control, the explosion at his departure showed the unleashed power of this Ariel.
Michael Milligan as Costard
A comic role, and mostly defined by the concept of Costard as a 60s hippy, but absolutely inspired. Milligan's 'duuuude' performance with shades, long hair, beard and CND shirt was a well–thought take on the character, and he interspersed it with asides, snatches of pop music and a great sense of humour. To hear him admit after his bravado, "Dude, I'm scared to go to jail, man", was brilliant.
And there you have it, my favourite performances of the festival so far. Any more nominations, send them to the usual address!
August 19, 2006
I always try to read a selection of professional reviews of the shows I’ve seen- partly for interest, partly because they sometimes bring to light things I hadn’t noticed and partly because they sometimes give a good platform for argument. One of the most respected of these critics is Michael Billington, the Guardian theatre critic, who I went to a workshop with last year. He’s the one who reviews all of the RSC’s show, and by and large I like his reviews- he’s normally fair without letting preconceptions carry him away, and he also backed me up in appreciating the German ‘Othello’.
This time though, Michael, you’re just plain wrong.
This was a very funny and vibrant ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost, presented by Washington’s Shakespeare Theater Company. Full of energy, music, a lot of laughter and an intelligible reading of a very wordy play, I thought it was great, even from the heights of Gallery 2.
Billington’s problem stemmed from the setting of the play, easily the most radical thing director Michael Kahn had done. He saw it as taking place in 60’s India, with the King of Navarre being reimagined as an Indian guru and the three male courtiers as a rock band (like the Beatles) attracted to him to rediscover their spiritual side. The French princess and her ladies became jumpsuit-wearing, moped-riding Charlie’s Angels lookalikes, and Costard, wonderfully performed by Michael Milligan, wore a CND shirt and hippy beard and cried, “Police brutality, we’ve gotta fight the fascists, man!”
Billington reckoned that this resetting of the play, “doesn’t hold water for two minutes”, which I thoroughly disagreed with. The sassiness of the French women made sense in an era of female empowerment, and the treatment of the Indian Dull as stupid by the very white and fat Holofernes and Nathaniel lent an interesting colonial aspect to the play.
Elsewhere, the men’s disguise as Russian cosmonauts, entering to ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’ was a comic highlight, and the long reading of the poems as rock songs in Act One got better and better- as first Berowne strummed a couple of chords, then Navarre brought in a sitar player, Longaville an entire drum kit and recorded instrumental section, and finally Dumaine entered with his acoustic guitar and was accompanied in his song by the other concealed members of the band (yet another moment which Billington criticised, apparently for its lack of realism- I think he missed the point that it was absolutely hysterical!).
My only gripe was the slightly clumsy handling of Marcade’s impact on the play- always a difficult moment to stage, as effectively a character enters at the height of the comedy and completely deadens the mood for the rest of the play. Here, though, it didn’t have quite the dramatic impact it needed, and the musical finale was a bit damp- all lending for a suitably subdued ending, but not as satisfactory as it could have been. Any production of ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’ has to really think about this moment, as a mishandling can ruin the entire play- how do you stage an anticlimax without it actually being one?!
But, when I think about this production, I will remember Costard singing, “You say you want remuneration…..” (ie ‘Revolution’ for any non-Beatles fans), Don Armado’s antics with his springy cane, the wonderful music and Holofernes bringing in a placard at the start of the masque proclaiming it to be by, “Harold Holofernes, author of Shakespeare Loves Me”. Colourful, energetic, very funny and thoroughly entertaining, Kahn’s conceit worked for me and for the audience- and I stand defiant to the critics.
I've had a terrible night. I was meant to be seeing 'Love's Labour's Lost' tonight, along with a pre–show talk by the director beforehand. Instead, this happened.
You would have thought that English public transport would be equipped to deal with bad weather, but no. A combination of intense rain, flooding, a lightning strike on a signal box and a severe accident caused by the conditions meant that tonight's trip to Stratford was doomed from the start. Suffice to say that it took over 3 and a half hours to travel the twenty miles or so between Coventry and Stratford–Upon–Avon, and instead of arriving in time for the 5.30pm pre–show talk, I got there about 7.30pm, after the performance had begun.
Weighing up the pros and cons, I decided to buy a ticket for tomorrow's matinee– that way I will at least get to see the whole production and won't be in a mad panic. I'm very, very annoyed though. Stratford–Upon–Avon is one of the most important tourist destinations in the country, yet it is abysmally served by public transport, with trains only every two hours and infrequent bus services. It's a big issue, and one that the local council need to resolve with travel companies– but unfortunately, the people who lose out are those like me who are heavily dependent on public transport.
The way home likewise caused trouble, with half an hour spent trapped behind one particularly bad accident. Overall, I ended up spending just over six hours tonight to travel from Coventry to Stratford in order to buy a ticket for a show tomorrow.