All entries for August 2008

August 30, 2008

Cabaret @ Birmingham Repertory Theatre

Following the recent Shakespeare binge, something a bit different last night - the first preview of the new touring production of Cabaret at Birmingham Rep. A revival of the West End production, with most of the same creative team but an almost entirely new cast, the production is staying in Birmingham for a couple of weeks before heading out around the country.

I'm not convinced, after this and the San Francisco production, that Cabaret is actually a particularly good piece of theatre. The plot is flimsy, and devotes far too much time to a fairly dull subplot. There are holes everywhere, and some of the songs - mostly the ones set outside the Kit Kat Club - are particularly tedious. It may be that I've just not seen a truly great production yet, but on the evidence thus far I'm convinced that the heavily re-worked film version is infinitely superior. However, I'm not reviewing the writing, but the production, and the play's faults are not the company's.

The chief attraction of this production was the professional stage debut of Samantha Barks, one of the final three on I'd Do Anything (a genre of programme which, I admit, I have very little time for). In point of fact, this being the first preview, this was presumably her first professional appearance, making this perhaps her first review? In any case, despite the ongoing debates about the merits of these reality-musical programmes, we can thank the BBC for Barks. She gave a fantastic central performance, all voice and charisma. Her Sally Bowles was relatively softly-spoken, bringing out the vulnerability of the character to great effect and investing us emotionally in the dilemmas she faced as Cliff grew ever more distant and cruel. Her singing voice was excellent, particularly stunning in Mein Herr and, of course, Cabaret itself, and she also proved herself as a dancer, backed up by an excellent line. The beautiful Maybe This Time, sung alone on Cliff's bed, was one of the most uplifting moments of the show, and watching Sally decline over the second act was heartbreaking. As actress, performer and singer, Barks couldn't have given a better debut performance and hopefully she'll only grow in confidence as the run continues.

The other big name was Wayne Sleep, reprising his role as the Emcee. Sleep's performance was overall surprisingly disappointing, albeit with flashes of brilliance. This Emcee was a nasty little man, the cruel owner of the club who threw Sally out before the applause had faded on her final performance. His age and short stature added to the unpleasantness of the character, fondling the young leggy dancers with a leer. For most of the play, the Emcee didn't give away his humanity or his beliefs, staying in role as the lecherous host and providing the innuendo and spectacle. While this was extremely effective in getting across the decadence of Berlin, it meant the play felt far shallower than it perhaps should. Whereas in San Francisco the Emcee's hints at humanity and glances at the action tied in his numbers, making them satirical commentary on events, here the Emcee felt completely separate from what was going on, simply indulging his own fantasies. Songs such as Two Ladies or The Money Song were therefore great fun and well-performed, but felt like diversions rather than expansions of the themes. I don't know what the script dictates, but in SF The Money Song followed on directly from Cliff and Sally's arguments over the importance of money, while here the two were separated by the reprise of Tomorrow Belongs to Me which meant that Money lost its resonance.

The song which contained both the highlights and lowlights of Sleep's performance was the ever-difficult If You Could See Her. In a neat idea, the pig-faced Jewess was attached to the Emcee's back, he simply turning his back on the audience in order to display her. The close attachment of the 'couple' allowed for some beautiful moments, particularly as Sleep defensively placed her arms as if shielding her from the world. Halfway through the song, for the dance break, a fast-moving curtain deftly replaced Sleep with another dancer dressed in the same way, who performed a spectacular 'backwards' dance, making the dummy woman jump about in convincing ballet moves, one of the best dances of the evening. As the break ended, a 'mistake' with the curtain revealed that it wasn't, in fact, Sleep who had been performing the dance. While funny, this began a horrendous segment in which Sleep remonstrated with the audience for not believing it had been him, shouting "Do you think I'm too old to do that anymore?" With audience encouragement, Sleep went into a long period of comedy dances, ending one with pretended back pain, before finishing off in a dance duet with his double. This moment served to make the Emcee look like a pantomime dame rather than the cutting character the rest of the play hinted at. And yet, Sleep still managed to redeem himself with a truly blinding finale, which I'll come to later. The performance wasn't bad as such, but his role within the musical seemed to be confused - commentator, showman, funnyman, conscience, all combined to messy effect.

This was the first preview, so unsurprisingly there were a few technical glitches with microphones and set changes which can be fairly ignored. Katrina Lindsay's design was exciting throughout, from the auditorium high 'WILLKOMEN' letters that the audience were greeted with on arrival to the slightly surreal backstage areas with moving mirrors, sliding ladders (a feature throughout) and multiple levels with glimpses into the sordid back rooms of the club. Some interesting staging decisions greatly increased the fluidity - the bed frames in Cliff's room, for example, became the cages in which the dancers performed Don't Tell Mama.

The growing Nazi threat was shown in the background throughout, the director Rufus Norris choosing to allow the audience to gradually become aware of what was going on. In an early scene, a young blonde boy was seen being moved on by dancers as he started to sing a song. Later, as Cliff returned from Paris, the same boy appeared again before person-high letters spelling BERLIN, this time unchallenged as he began Tomorrow Belongs to Me. As in the film, the performer (Theo Cook) had a beautiful voice and completely nailed the song, which sent a shiver down the spine as more and more voices joined in. Interestingly, the stage was full as he began, and the voices came in as the rest of the performers left, having the interesting effect of showing him increasingly powerful as he became more alone. In the background, though, a more disturbing tableuax of naked bodies facing away from us was appearing, an unexplained image reminiscent of concentration camps. It was to this image that the play returned in its finale. With letters spelling KABARET placed at the front of the stage, the naked bodies again appeared, shivering and shaking. The Nazi entered and, one by one, pushed over all the letters, the thud of each one drawing a scream from the bodies. Standing next to the central 'A' (which remained standing), the Emcee addressed the audience coolly as he asked "Where are your troubles now?" Finishing his speech, he pushed over the 'A', turned away, took off his clothes and joined the rest of the huddled bodies as they cowered in fear, before the lights blacked out. This powerful ending (aside from drawing quite inappropriate laughs as Sleep took off his clothes) was an excellent close to the story, drawing last-minute prominence to the terrors that had surrounded the activity. It would have been even better had it felt like the Emcee was building to this throughout the show, but the moment was strong enough to stand by itself.

Jenny Logan and Matt Zimmerman gave decent performances as Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz, investing even slight material such as So What? with a bit of dignity, and the sweet It Couldn't Please Me More, complete with hula-girls appearing at the sides, was particularly well done. It's a slight subplot, if a sad one, but well-performed. Also good was Henry Luxemburg as Cliff, who gave a nicely complicated turn that showed a sophisticated approach to his bisexuality. Simultaneously impulsive but tongue-tied about his preferences, Luxemburg's Cliff was driven by emotion and sensation, despite his continual promises to get his life in order. As the political climate slowly turned him to despair, his behaviour towards Sally became odious, refusing to listen and instead trying to make her decisions for her. Sally's abortion became a reaction to his controlling, a way to wrest control of her own destiny back from him. The turn in his character took on a tragic dimension, ruining his own happiness through an inability to see the small picture, the woman in front of him. His beautiful Why Should I Wake Up? summed up the entire feel of the production, a minor song suddenly seeming achingly important.

As said, this was a first preview and therefore one can't expect the production to be at it's best yet. Even at this early stage, though, it seems they're on to a winner. The cast were excellent, the songs and dances expertly choreographed (I haven't given enough time to the dancers, and in particularly Javier de Frutos' continually innovative choreography, giving each number its own look and style) and the growing darkness well realised. If the songs were better fitted to the action, and the Emcee's role given careful consideration, this would be even better. Oh, and the orchestra were beautiful.

August 26, 2008

The Merry Wives of Windsor @ Shakespeare's Globe

So, finally, on to The Merry Wives of Windsor, the last of my three London plays this weekend and, in my opinion, the best. Not as inventive as Timon, nor as technically outstanding as Waves, it might seem an unlikely judgment, but Merry Wives did exactly what it said on the tin. By far the funniest production I've ever seen at the Globe, Christopher Luscombe's new production made a convincing case for revisiting one of the more neglected plays in the canon.

This is actually the first straight Wives I've ever seen on stage, my only prior experience being the woeful BBC film and the sorely flawed Merry Wives: The Musical at the RSC. At first, I wasn't convinced that this production was going to do a much better job. The play starts weakly with a dull conversation between three secondary characters, there's a succession of seemingly endless introductions as the large cast of characters is introduced and the reappearance of characters from the Henry IV plays rely heavily on audiences recognising their foibles and catchphrases. It's not an easy opening to a play, and this production correspondingly took a bit of time to get going. Once it did, though, it never stopped. This was the Globe at its most riotous, an almost pantomimic display of farce, action, daft accents, silly costumes, witty banter, knockabout humour and kiddies in fancy costumes. It's the perfect play for the Globe space, and Luscombe delivered an ideal production that kept the audience in stitches.

A long walkway curved out from the stage, through the pit of the Globe to rejoin the stage at the other side, effectively bisecting the audience in the same way U2 have done on their two previous tours, complete with smaller "b-stage" right in the centre of the groundlings. There was a fair bit of scrummage to get into the privileged front bit, but the main advantage of the walkway was in fact that it improved audience sightlines all round, bringing the actors right into the middle of the crowd and allowing them to use the whole of the theatre. The "b-stage" became a location for more intimate scenes - to laughs from the audience, it revolved early on to reveal an entire garden scene complete with bench and flowers, in which Mistresses Ford and Page conferred and in which Fenton secretly wooed Anne. Against the tiring house was set a Tudor-style wooden structure with staircase, simple enough to effectively double as the Garter Inn and Ford's house.

Luscombe's company, many alumni of his Comedy of Errors at the Globe a couple of years back, were on fire throughout, playing well to the audience and displaying impeccable comic timing. The absolute highlights were Serena Evans and Sarah Woodward as, respectively, Mistress Page and Mistress Ford. Refusing to go gracefully into late middle-age, the ladies were here childlike in their giggling tricks and whispered confabs, applauding each other always with a glint in their eye. The two scenes at Ford's house were just wonderful, the two women 'acting' for Falstaff's benefit: skipping around the stage, flapping arms comically, using all the standard melodramatic poses and shouting into the areas where Falstaff was hidden to make sure their words weren't missed. The comedy of seeing these two housewives playing like little girls added greatly to the effect, lending these scenes a joyous sense of abandon.

Christopher Benjamin's Falstaff was good sport throughout. Wisely, an actor had been chosen who was active enough to act past his best; thus, Benjamin entertained throughout his wooing of Mistress Ford by having his joints continually seize up, leaving him stuck on bent knee or hobbling sideways as he tried to get his back straight. Good-humoured throughout, he kept the audience onside by never letting the setbacks get him down, his humour always returning after a burst of righteous indignation. His willingness to be shown his own weaker side was shown in the finale, as he sat on a stump while the unmasked townsfolk of Windsor stared at him. Resigning himself to his foolery, he allowed himself to be led back along the walkway by one of the children, tacitly admitting to his own defeat without protest. Touches like this humanised Falstaff, keeping him sympathetic, someone we could laugh at and with without having to resort to cruelty. Whether preening in his best doublet and playing peekaboo with Mistress Ford or jovially taking Brook's money, this was a Falstaff we could take equal pleasure in watching win or lose.

Ford, played excellently by Andrew Havill, was an even more interesting mixture. Channelling the spirit of Basil Fawlty (who occupied a prominent place in the programme notes), Havill played up Ford's comic jealousy, making him the primary butt of the humour and justifying this through his lack of trust in his wife. As Brook, he wore a floppy yellow wig and bubbled up with silent shock and rage as Falstaff casually described his wife's infidelities. As himself, his scenes of searching the house bordered on hysteria, particularly as he jumped into the Falstaff-less buckbasket to search the very bottom of the container. Yet, while we enjoyed watching him being made a fool as much as Falstaff, great pathos was wrought out of his reunion with his wife. Done movingly in the RSC's version as well, I'm surprised to say that this is one of the few moments in Shakespeare that has never failed to move me, he taking his wife's hand and gently asking her forgiveness, Havill making the contrition completely believable. From this moment on, Ford was very much part of the gang, moving all focus back to Falstaff as the object of humiliation. This production chose Ford to drive the plot, and it was his arc that gave the play its strongest sense of backbone, of a through line against which the antics of Falstaff, Evans, Caius et al. were played out.

Against these four excellent performances, it was surprising that anyone else was able to get a look in, yet there were great moments everywhere. Philip Bird had fun with an extreme French accent that relied heavily on "Buggers" and "Turds" (ie "by God" and "third") to get prolonged laughs out of the audience. Gareth Armstrong was less manic as Hugh Evans, but still got plenty of mileage out of his own funny accent and an excellent screaming fit when Caius confronted him for their duel. Jonty Stephens' cockney Host presided throughout, never prominent but always part of the action, tying together various strands along with Mistress Quickly. Will Belchambers threatened to steal the show on several occasions as an obviously gay Slender, who was more than happy to find he had ended up with a boy at the wedding, and who struggled to talk to Anne at all when left alone, completely out of his depth with a woman.

The two and a half hour running time was brought about by some merciless cutting. Several of the small subplots and scenes (the Latin lesson, the Host's horses) were removed, reducing the roles of Caius, Evans and the Host somewhat. Pistol and Nym disappeared after their reporting of Falstaff's plans to Page and Ford (the actors doubling John and Robert, who here were the 'boys' that Caius and Slender found themselves lumbered with), and Bardolph was omitted entirely. These cuts served to tidy up the convoluted plotlines a great deal, but also struggled to justify the sheer amount of characters on stage (why not go one further and get rid of Simple and Rugby, who had almost nothing to do here?). However, the prominence of the main storyline is hardly unjustified (it is, after all, the Merry Wives' show!), and the cast offered able comic support throughout, the extra storylines merely fun diversions.

The knockabout farce was well-executed; Ford's beating of Falstaff was sufficiently painful-looking to make the appropriate impact on the audience, but rendered funny by Ford's reappearance with a severely-bent poker, and John and Robert both pulled their backs trying to lift the loaded buckbasket before giving up and pushing it out. These scenes worked particularly well in the Globe space, the immediate proximity giving the cast plenty of opportunity to play up to audience reactions and pause to draw further laughs, acknowledging the ridiculousness of the situations before shrugging and carrying on. The finale at the old oak, however, was a bit weak, a song and dance number that saw children poking at the still Falstaff while the adult cast stood around the stage singing. After the set-up and the excellent physical comedy of earlier, it felt like a rather mild final humiliation. Still, it achieved the required effect and the children were excellent, joining in the choreography with gusto.

I've suggested before that the Globe's natural atmosphere is one of comedy, and Merry Wives confirmed that. What is, basically, quite a silly play turned out to be a rich and endlessly funny afternoon in the sun, with even the simpler verbal humour drawing huge laughs. It's likened in the programme to a sit-com, and in many ways I would completely agree - it's easy comedy that an audience doesn't have to work hard to enjoy, and it's nice to find a production of a Shakespearean comedy that can genuinely keep a large audience in stitches. My personal highlight of an excellent Globe season, and hopefully a challenge to other directors to revisit this neglected play.

August 25, 2008

Waves @ The National Theatre

Three hours after Timon had finished, I was taking my seat in the Cottesloe for Waves. Originally performed back in 2006, the production has been revived for a world tour and, partly because I was interested to finally see a Katie Mitchell production and partly because my partner loves Virginia Woolf's work, we decided to catch it while in London. It's a devised piece based on Woolf's novel The Waves, believed by many to be her greatest work, and Mitchell has a reputation for startling and inventive productions that seem to divide audiences and critics.

I'll make the important admission first: I've never read The Waves and, after Saturday night, I can't claim to be much the wiser. This was by no means 'a play' of the text. Taking inspiration from the structure of the novel, the production dived straight into the text, telling events from the points of view of six different narrators, their words stream-of-consciousness thoughts rather than storytelling. As well as giving us no introduction to the characters, the parts were also swapped around between the eight-person cast. Each character was visually presented by the same actor, but the voice was usually provided by another actor, not necessarily the same each time. This made it extremely difficult to keep track of which character was which, requiring a great level of concentration to distinguish the various stories. I'm not particularly embarrassed to admit that it was only really afterwards, in discussion, that I managed to distinguish Bernard, Ginny, Susan and Louis and make sense of much that I had seen.

In a manner extremely reminiscent of Filter Theatre, a company whose work I love, this production used a variety of media to create images and sounds on-stage, with the process always on display. The company began by sitting on chairs behind tables, all wearing black. Shelves to the sides contained a dizzying array of props and apparatus, and the tables were cluttered with desk lamps and video cameras. Using microphones and a variety of impressive tricks, the company created visual and audio tableuaxs to accentuate the text and create appropriate atmospheres. For example, several slabs of different surfaces including concrete and grass were placed on the floor which actors stamped on to create the appropriate walking sound, or paper was torn in front of a microphone to create the noise of a character opening an envelope.

Much of the action was filmed live onstage and projected onto a large screen behind the company. The live activity was therefore largely geared towards the mechanics of creating these extremely clever images. In a restaurant scene between the characters, three sat at one end of the stage, three at another, all in the same line. Using two cameras, their images were projected onto the screen to show the six sitting opposite one another. Wine was passed between opposite sides of the table by using doubled props and costumed arms; so, as one woman lent across the table, a hidden cast member put on a sleeve that matched hers, leaning into the shot of the other camera in perfect synchronisation with her movements. Clever use was made of double-sided glass for the many shots of people talking into mirrors, only to have a ghostly face of the person they were thinking of appear in the glass behind them. Extreme close-ups gave an intimate quality to many of the spoken thoughts, such as eyes peering through branches or shots from under fishbowls as someone washed their face, giving the impression that we were being allowed exlusive access into their heads.

Specific moments leapt out. One hilarious interlude, as Neville first saw Percival across the room at school, was particularly good, the camera dissolving between the two faces as Neville rapturously ate a banana in one of the least subtle bits of symbolism I've ever seen on stage while Percival went from fully-clothed to, in Neville's mind, naked. The second half of the production started with a series of scenes effective in a very different way. Each of the six friends received a telegram reporting Percival's death. As each envelope was opened in turn, the screen went into grey slow-motion, showing time slowing as the news sank in before they reacted in their own ways. Rhoda's suicide was also effectively realised, a simple blue screen behind the actor's head and a large fan conjuring the image of her standing atop a cliff before ducking out of camera quickly, the screen giving the impression of her fall.

It was all extremely clever, which was also the production's downfall. The technical dexterity of the performers and the incredible imagination that had gone into these scenes couldn't be disputed, but I was left for much of the first half wondering what the point of it all was. It seemed to have been created primarily for the point of demonstrating technical cleverness, rather than for what it did for the text. In point of fact, by the interval, I was wondering if the text was actually important at all, or if it could have been anything. I was somewhat mollified by the second half, though, which seemed to me to use the medium to far greater effect in scenes such as the receiving of the telegrams, where the televisual approach did allow a far more intimate emotional connection with the characters.

The odd addition of Virginia Woolf as an occasional narrator, speaking into a microphone while smoking a cigarette, was an unusual decision - sometimes narrating bits of the text, at other time reading extracts from Woolf's diaries. The intent was clearly to fuse the text of The Waves with the biographical history of Woolf herself which inspired it, but it added a further level of confusion to an already difficult story. Nevertheless, the Woolf character was also used to help explicate the action by providing date and place at the start of each section, scrawled onto a blackboard.

This was a spectacular evening in the theatre, with the company creating marvellous work on a large scale that demonstrated just how effectively video and sound can be created live onstage, and for that reason alone I would heartily recommend this to anyone interested in theatrical practice. The company were truly fantastic in their continual multi-tasking and swapping of parts and technical duties. However, I was disappointed at how subsidiary the text felt next to the technical trickery, and would have appreciated a little more time spent on the substance, rather than the style. I would imagine that people with an intimate knowledge of the text would get a huge amount from this production, as presumably did the company themselves, but as an entry-level introduction to Woolf there was just too much going on.

Timon of Athens @ Shakespeare's Globe

After years of not knowing what answer to give, I recently finally decided that Timon of Athens is my favourite Shakespeare play. Structurally it's fascinating, built in recurring circles of action that allow examinations of the varoius character types from a variety of angles. The language, as befits a Middleton collaboration, is suitably depraved and visceral, particularly dwelling on images of sexual disease to illustrate the corruption inherent in society. It's incredibly relevant to now (Athens is in the middle of a credit crunch!). The plunge of Timon from bounty to misanthrope is one of the most extreme and dramatic in literature, and there are great characters such as Apemantus and Flavius. Plus, it's short, it's often funny and it's never dull. The centuries of neglect it has received, perhaps fairly down to the unfinished look of the text, have criminally kept an important play from general public consciousness.

So, 2008, and perhaps the first ever production of Timon at the Globe, original or reconstructed. Happily, director Lucy Bailey has done it proud. Perhaps recognising that the unfamiliarity of the play might not appeal to a casual audience, Bailey seems to have been given free rein to adapt the theatre and do something radically different with the space and design. Taking her cue from the play's many references to birds, and to the 'eating' of Timon by his hangers-on, Bailey and designer William Dudley turned the space into a giant, nightmarish aviary, with wire netting covering the roof of the Globe. Before the performance had even begun, actors had begun crawling onto the netting, clicking and cawing at the audience below. Most of the characters, both these extra-textual 'vultures' and Timon's companions, wore costumes that tapered at the bottom into bird's feathers and tails, and the vultures wore feathers all over. Crawling over the gauze and down the pillars of the Globe stage, the image throughout was of birds pecking away at Timon, greedily eating away as they pounced on every discarded coin or piece of food. Most dramatically, holes in the gauze allowed the vultures to bungee down on long cords, hovering over the stage or audience while screaming at us.

The stage itself was also radically redesigned. Extending out in a large semi-circle shape, the audience was partly separated by a pit at extreme downstage, from which billowed vast clouds of smoke that added to the hellish atmosphere. Upstage, meanwhile, a curved concrete wall stood in front of the tiring house (strikingly similar to the sea barriers on the Wirral coast where I grew up, though I wasn't sure if this was what it was meant to be). For the first half both barrier and pit were used in place of furniture in Timon's house - as guests sat down to dinner, they either sat behind the wall and used it as a table, or else they sat in the pit and ate off the main stage. For the second half, however, a new floor of blasted volcanic rock was laid down, with the wall becoming similarly blasted, and with the smoke the impression was of an igneous landscape where nothing could grow, and where Timon was increasingly covered in ash.

In the programme notes, Bailey notes that she had tidied up the text to attempt to clarify storylines, which she achieved intelligently with plenty of added visual material. Here, for example, Alcibiade's friend was present from the start, a fellow soldier who engaged in revellry at Timon's and was clearly beloved of Alcibiades. When pleading for him at the senate, Alcibiades' eyes were continually drawn to his friend, who was seen being dragged up one of the pillars by two of the vultures, handcuffed and beaten. As the vultures prepared to execute him, Alcibiades' pleas were given immediate urgency, his voice becoming ever more panicked as he tried to prevent the death. After the banishment was announced, the friend had his throat cut, messily and bloodily, and his body was left hanging from the pillar as Alcibiades left vowing vengeance. This went a long way towards justifying Alcibiades' rage against Athens in revenge for the murder. Another effective addition was the early introduction of Phrynia and Timandra (in a nice bit of cross-casting, Pippa Nixon and Laura Rogers who played Hermia and Helena in the Globe's Dream), who were part of the group of prostitutes/lap-dancers that replaced Cupid's masque. These two latched on to Alcibiades early in the feast and were seen appearing from under the table after performing fellatio on at least two occasions (hardly enough to justify the ridiculous claims of being the most shocking Shakespeare ever), and followed him ever after, first in fine clothes as they enjoyed his riches, then increasingly tattered after the banishment, justifying their enthusiastic pleas with Timon for more money, orgiastically thrusting it down their tops and allowing Timon to run his hands over their bodies as they cried in ecstasy.

Other additions included expansion of Ventidius, played effectively by Oliver Boot. Ventidius was seen imprisoned at the start, lying on a ledge at the top of a pillar, bloodied and bruised. After his release, Timon dressed him in a white robe that matched his own, and showed him special favours throughout the celebrations, clearly distressed by the whip marks on his back. Later, though, we saw the scene only alluded to in the text, where Flavius approaches Ventidius for relief of Timon's monetary problems. Ventidius, distracted with another prostitute, merely scoffed at Flavius before taking off his white robe and throwing it back, abandoning himself to pleasure. Later, as Timon wept for the friends he had lost, the word 'Ventidius' stuck in his throat, this betrayal too much for him to bear. The doubling of Lucilius, the servant endowed by Timon, with the ungrateful friend Lucius, also allowed this betrayal to take on extra significance in the light of Timon's generosity.

The central performance, Simon Paisley Day's Timon, was excellent. Dressed in white at the start, with long hair tied back and an ever-present beneficent smile, Timon was Jesus-like in his goodness. In his first appearance, entering through the audience, he was preceded by a procession of young women who threw gold coins among the crowd. His generosity was always tempered by his clear indulgence of luxury, made most explicit in the feast. First he allowed his friends to crowd around him on the floor, weeping with feigned gratitude at his generosity until they were assembled en masse in a ridiculous, heaving group of emotion. At the announcement of women, the men quickly dusted themselves off. 'Cupid' descended from the flies, a nubile lap-dancer who teasingly threw darts at the assembled men before a group of other women appeared from the pit, draping themselves over the men, the clear implication being that Timon's feasts were typically orgies, at odds with Timon's Christ-like presentation of himself. His calmness and dignity contrasted effectively with his later, reduced state, as well as complicating our impression of him.

In the second act, dressed in only a loincloth, Timon scrabbled in the dirt and took on several animal characteristics (a mockery of the first act, where he and his friends played a repeated game of acting like dogs and rolling together on the floor). Rather than becoming towering in his rage, Day instead took a more rational approach to Timon's actions, mulling things over and acting in a considered way to achieve the effect he wanted. His treatment of the thoroughly comic Poet and Painter was a case in point - he timed their arrival to coincide with his defecating into a pit, into which he forced the Poet to both step and also reach to retrieve a root he had dropped. He then led them into a situation where he had them jokingly offering to kill themselves, before suddenly becoming serious and looking at them as if to insist that they went through with it. When they failed, he reached into the pit and smeared faeces over their faces in punishment.

The bleak second act was relieved by interesting interpretations of the various vignettes with his visitors. The thieves descended from the overhead gauze, two of them on bungee ropes that allowed them to bounce across the stage and engage in a kind of dance with Timon that saw them acrobatically flipping and being released from him in a ballet of conspiracy, agreeing to his charges. The meeting with the senators was partly farcical as the largest of the men tried to hoist himself over the concrete wall to reach Timon and got stuck, while Flavius (who remained on stage throughout the second act after first coming to Timon, loyally staying with his master) mocked them while chewing on a root. Flavius' first meeting, by contrast, was performed straight, allowing the man and his master their moment of humanity together. Flavius, played by Patrick Godfrey,was relatively elderly and independently-minded, frustrated at his master's ill-management but unwilling to abandon him, and in earlier scenes he had been surprisingly blunt in his dealings with both Timon and the various suitors. The other two servants had also been nicely characterised, particularly Christopher Brandon's Servillius who was given a stutter that the opposing servants cruelly mocked as they harangued him for monies.

Bo Ponaj made for a very effective Apemantus, a dishevelled student with spiky hair, brown dressing gown and satchel who wandered the stage with a constant look of disgust at the excesses of Timon's home. He was mocked throughout by everyone else, his grace being met with a shower of food from the other dinner guests before he was unceremoniously shoved off-stage into the audience (he marched out screaming "Move!" at the assembled public). In the second half, however, he entered in almost joyous mood, laughing outrageously at Timon's new fortune, before realising the severity of the change as Timon began talking about his death and scratching at the small piece of slate he used as a shovel. Showing some sympathy, he tried to give Timon some food and seemed almost reluctant to leave, though always rose to the bait to begin angry arguments afresh. His moderation showed up the extremities of Timon's relative situations, and his comic attitude endeared him to the audience. Gary Oliver's Alcibiades, meanwhile, was a soldier in the Brian Blessed mould, a bellowing man who enjoyed physical pleasures and drew all attention onto himself. When he came to Timon with his women, he was dishevelled and clearly poor, but focussed and ready to sack Athens, yet still showed some sympathy for Timon, allowing his brash facade to soften for a moment.

Despite all this excellent work, I couldn't help but feel that the production dropped the ball at the final moment. Announcing as the senators left that he was at last ready to die, he dug himself a trench in the gravel and laid down in it, placing two coins over his eyes. As he lay, the vultures suddenly appeared, diving onto the body from all angles and rearing up with bloody mouths as they tore him to shreds, finally literally feeding off his carcass. This was interrupted by Alcibiades appearing, addressing the vultures as the people of Athens and throwing them off and away before specifically going after the senators. On the point of killing one of them, Flavius interrupted with news of Timon's death, presenting the piece of slate to Alcibiades who read the epitaph. At this news his fury abated, and instead he led the vultures in a dance of reunification and peace. This entire final scene seemed to only take a couple of minutes, and was a huge anti-climax. The second half had built heavily on the humour inherent in the various meetings with visitors, particularly the Poet and Painter, and as such the audience weren't prepared for the moment of death and continued, to some extent, to laugh as he buried himself. While the reappearance of the vultures and Alcibiades' spurning of them fitted thematically with the aesthetic of the production, the final dance was an untidy resolution, a dramatically weak conclusion to a story that had so abruptly finished. However, this didn't detract too much from a production that had found a genuinely creative interpretation of a difficult play and proved that it works on the stage. A fine production, and always nice to see the Globe subverting audience expectations. More Timons, please.

August 22, 2008

A Midsummer Night's Dream @ The Courtyard Theatre

Considering the RSC's fondness for revivals (cf the recent Henry VI/Richard III cycle and the touring The Comedy of Errors), it's perhaps surprising that this is the first time I've been to one that I saw first time round. Greg Doran's A Midsummer Night's Dream was one of the better productions of the 2005 Comedies Season, and was also my first introduction to several of the actors I'd be increasingly impressed by in subsequent appearances: Jonathan Slinger, Jamie Ballard, Paul Chahidi, Trystan Gravelle and Miles Richardson, to name a few. I was more than pleased, therefore, to hear that the production was returning for the 2008 summer season, re-cast and re-imagined for the Courtyard's thrust stage. Dreams are too plentiful, but I had no reservations about revisiting one I had enjoyed so much.

Did it live up to expectations? Well, yes and no. Try as I might to judge the production on its own merits, I couldn't help but compare the company to the original cast and several performances just didn't grab me in the way their predecessors did. Likewise, the new design for the forest (bare mirrors) was, I felt, less interesting than the junkyard of the original, not least because the old design made sense of the fairies' matching costumes. And of course, any comedy always suffers when you know the jokes - the Pyramus and Thisbe sequence, which had me crying with laughter in 2005, here only raised a smile. So, for that reason, I'm going to attempt to avoid comparisons in this blog, because while I may not have enjoyed it as much as the original, this was still on its own merits a perfectly good production which was consistently entertaining and full of interest.

The set, a simple mirrored wall covering the entire upstage area, was used to excellent effect by the lighting designer. A large spherical moon hung high above the stage, moving slowly downstage as the first half progressed, while different patterns of light and shadow indicated the passage of time on the wall, going from summery sunset to the pale full moon. This back wall also allowed for effective use of silhouette; fairies appeared behind the wall playing with bubbles as Titania slept, before being scattered by the vastly oversized shadow of Oberon. Other spectacular effects were achieved through a network of bulbs above the stage that were lowered at various points, including the end of the first half, to create a lattice of floating lights.

The fairies were the most entertaining part of the production, a dishevelled chorus who haunted the lovers and mechanicals throughout their time in the forest. Giggling and playing like naughty children, they took pleasure in cruelly echoing the terrified squeals of Hermia as she called for "Lysander?" and in chasing the Mechanicals with "animals" created out of their own tools and props. One particularly funny - and also touching - moment saw the exhausted Hermia walk onstage, only to be repeatedly picked up and placed back where she had entered, forever walking but not getting anywhere. The fairies also acted throughout as puppeteers, controlling both the Indian Boy (a model created by the Little Angel theatre) and small models of themselves with oversized heads, who they made 'fly' around Bottom's head as he reclined. Always involved and watching, the physical inventiveness with which they enhanced the various scenes between the lovers was always welcome, whether rifling through Lysander and Hermia's suitcases, creating branches with their arms that the young people had to fight through or simply acting as an onstage audience and "oohing" and "awwing" appropriately.

The lovers themselves were good value too. Edward Bennett, fresh from his Ian Charleson nomination for playing Roderigo in the Donmar's Othello, particularly shone as a public schoolboy caricature, pathetic and sneering, eventually running away from Helena after she bested him in a tussle. Kathryn Drysdale was also very funny as Hermia, tiny but all-powerful as she bossed Lysander about, flounced around the stage and generally ruled the roost. As events became more tangled, the temper started to erupt, culminating in a wonderful moment as Helena accidentally let slip the word "puppet", immediately retracting it as she realised the effect it would have. Lysander and Demetrius both gasped, and then backed away whistling as Hermia's rage built to boiling point.  It took both men to restrain her in her rage, and even then they struggled. Tom Davey and Natalie Walter made up the quartet, Davey playing Lysander as a layabout student type in casual clothes (a nice contrast to the well-dressed Demetrius, giving a sense of why Egeus preferred the latter). Walter, meanwhile, made for a flappy and very amusing Helena who was particularly good with the physical side, all arms and legs as she tried to protect herself from Hermia.

The weakest parts of this production came in the Mechanicals scenes, though these were far from awful. Ryan Gage was a very good Flute, good-humoured and natural in his transition from indignation at playing a woman to making a go of it with a smile. He shone in the Pyramus and Thisbe scenes, particularly as Thisbe found Pyramus dead. Here, the playlet shifted a gear from high farce, with Flute suddenly discovering his acting chops and delivering the final lines beautifully as the rest of the Mechanicals peered out from behind the curtain in astonishment. However, I was quite disappointed with Joe Dixon as Bottom. Dixon, who was an excellent Oberon in the original production, here seemed horribly miscast. While there were occasional flashes of comedy (including a very funny dance scene after getting his ass's head where he moonwalked and did the robot), the jokes in the text itself were lost in uninspired delivery. Too often he relied on silly noises, such as a series of "whooshes" interspersing his "Die, die, die, die, die" finale, or on his Brummie accent to get the laughs.

The Pyramus and Thisbe finale itself was excellent. The jokes stolen by the Globe production. involving the chink in the wall being between Snout's legs, were here extremely well done and rapturously received by an hysterical audience (the references to 'stones' and 'holes' seeming so obvious when played in this way that one can only assume Shakespeare put them there deliberately). I'll break my rule and make one comparison: the exuberance of Paul Chahidi was sorely missed in the role of Quince, as Roderick Smith didn't get nearly enough mileage out of it. After the prologue, he stripped down to black tights, rolled acrobatically across the floor and presented himself as an action figure called "Truth". It's a great interpretation of the role, but Smith's delivery was muted, meaning the ridiculousness of the part was overshadowed by the rest of the activity. However, Ricky Champ almost stole the show as Snout, funniest in a moment when the portable stage on which the Mechanicals were performing was removed to reveal him agonising to Quince over his performance.

Peter de Jersey and Andrea Harris were decent as Oberon and Titania, de Jersey making a particularly effective entrance in the midst of dry ice, sweeping up on a mobile platform to appear as if from nowhere. Their reunion, sealed as they both flew off into the flies, was suitably magical, and Harris was particularly good when bewitched, cooing over Bottom almost deliriously. Oberon was less powerful than might have been expected (save the spectacular shadow scene), more an active meddler than a tyrant. He was ably assisted by Mark Hadfield's Puck, who turned up in a pile of rags at the start and dominated the stage for much of the play. He adopted some interesting horsey mannerisms to go with the fawn-elements of his costume (woolly legs and hooves), and it was fun to see a Puck more middle-aged and world-weary than most, trudging around as he did his master's bidding, yet still getting occasionally excited at the folly of the mortals he taunted so.

So, a mixed bag. In many ways, I wish I'd seen this without seeing the original production, as I think I would have enjoyed it far more. However, the company have done a lot of excellent work, and particularly between the lovers and the fairies this remains one of the best Dreams I've ever seen. It was also a tantalising first glimpse of the company who are also performing Hamlet and Love's Labour's Lost, and it should be far more fascinating to see them playing parts that they've created from scratch, rather than trying to fit into an old company's shoes.

August 20, 2008

Gnomeo and Juliet

I've just been accused of snobbery for being dismayed at this news article. To summarise, briefly.

A new CGI musical spoof of Romeo and Juliet.

Titled : Gnomeo and Juliet.

Starring James McAvoy as a gnome.

The film being primarily a vehicle for the music of Elton John.

* * * *

Snob I may be. Doesn't mean it's going to be any good though!

August 19, 2008

Mike and Angelo

A P.S. for everyone who, like me, was born in the eighties and used to watch kids TV after school. Michael Benz, who played Paulina and Young Shepherd, is better known to our generation as Mike from seminal kids series Mike and Angelo - see below for a reminder!! Ah, nostalgia.

Michael Benz

The Winter's Tale @ The Bodleian Library, Oxford

It's a busy week of theatre for me. I'm seeing the RSC's A Midsummer Night's Dream tonight (first glimpse for me of the ensemble who are also performing Hamlet and Love's Labour's Lost), and I'm spending the bank holiday in London where I'll catch the Globe's The Merry Wives of Windsor and Timon of Athens. For something a bit different, I'll also be seeing Waves at the National Theatre, based on a Virginia Woolf book and directed by Katie Mitchell, who I've heard many interesting things about.

Yesterday I saw the Globe again, this time the touring company doing The Winter's Tale. Given that my last experience of the Globe touring company was somewhat dampened, I was relieved to find Oxford bathed in glorious sunshine when I arrived. Ironically, the sun held for the entire first half of the play (ie the winter bit), before becoming clouded over and raining slightly during the second half, the summer sheep-shearing. The stubbornly inappropriate weather lent the production a fascinating and entirely undeliberate atmosphere, particularly in the second half where it emphasised the gloomier aspects and cast a slight pall over the scenes of pastoral celebration.

While perhaps not quite as evocative as the ruins of Coventry Cathedral, the quad of the Bodleian Library made for an impressive venue, the statue of Bodley himself glaring over the audience. However, the bell-ringing that started a block away just before the performance and continued without intermission for the entire performance was less welcome, jarring with the quieter and more severe moments. The production itself took place on a stage with a long, thin thrust. Most of the action took place on this catwalk, which interestingly inverted the perspective - while technically thrust, it often played more like traverse, with the end-on section of the audience quite far from the performers. At the back of the stage, a simple entrance with a circle pattern formed a backdrop.

The quad of the Bodleian Library
The quad of the Bodleian Library.

In a play so much concerned with families, it was fascinating to see so many related actors on stage; Sasha Hails played Hermione, Mamillius was credited to both Siofra and Grainne Hails (the two youngsters appeared at different moments in this and other child-roles though their physical similarity meant that I didn't realise this until they both appeared on stage together for the first time in the curtain call), while the tiny and adorable Cara Hails, credited as 'Young Shepherdess', appeared at start and end of acts with a placard announcing the time and place. The Globe has only been experimenting with touring in the spirit of Elizabethan players since last year, and this visual image of a family living and working on the road was a constant reminder of the practicalities of touring, reinforcing the scaled-down ethos.

The production was downsized in other ways, most notably the text. Clocking in at very slightly over two hours, including an interval, this was a vastly reduced Tale that edited the text considerably while cleverly retaining all the key activity. This was achieved primarily through the redistribution of minor parts and sequences - so, for example, the opening of 5.2 became a conversation between Autolycus and a single gentleman rather than a four-way discussion of events. Even the larger parts were doubled with smaller in order to accommodate a small cast: Leontes/Old Shepherd, Paulina/Young Shepherd, Hermione/Mopsa, Perdita/Emilia, Autolycus/Antigonus. A minimum lighting level was guaranteed by a couple of strings of bulbs over the stage, and all sound was created onstage with a lute and chime. The result of this pared-down approach was, of course, to focus attention on the actors.

John Dougall gave a measured performance as Leontes, casually dressed in shirt and waistcoat as were most of his court. His observations of Hermione and Polixenes began almost rationally, his curiosity gradually building into jealousy and anger; yet physically he remained fixed in place, thus allowing his rage to build internally rather than burning it off in outward violence. His queen and friend were seen, just offstage, talking quietly and often touching hands, heightening his rage. His anger and bitterness reached its crescendo in his introduction to his daughter, shouting openly at Paulina. By contrast to the effective build-up of his jealousy, though, its sudden disappearance felt awkward in the only moment in the fast play that felt rushed, the news of Mamillius and then Hermione's death. The news, and Leontes' repentance, was performed quickly, not allowing the impact of the offstage tragedies an opportunity to sink in before we found ourselves on the shores of Bohemia.

One of the most interesting casting decisions was Michael Benz playing Paulina as well as the Young Shepherd. Strong as the latter, he was particularly good in the female role, austere and feminine without resorting to campness. Cross-casting the part emphasised Paulina's repeated references to her own sex: "The office/ Becomes a woman best", "would by combat make her good, so were I/ A man" etc., which in turn strengthened both Paulina's daring in stepping outside of the expected bounds and at the same time her helplessness to defend Hermione as powerfully as she would wish. Although she and Antigonus, here a Geordie, showed no particular affection onstage, they stood together when confronting Leontes, and passed the babe gently between them.

A foreshadowing of the bear was seen in the young Mamillius, who crept up behind his mother wearing a pair of huge fake bear arms, which he put around her neck to frighten her. The family connection between the actors helped create a warm atmosphere for the domestic scene, with the heavily pregnant Hermione only annoyed for a few seconds at her son. Leontes' entrance in this scene was countered angrily by Hermione, who strode off with dignity at the accusations. This dignity had faded by the trial scene itself, to be replaced by despair and, for a second, joy at the reprieve of the oracle. This Hermione was devoted to her family first and foremost, and the news of Mamillius' death left her instantly unconscious on the stage.

The bear made another appearance in arm form as Antigonus walked towards the back of the stage. Leaning against the entrance, one of the huge arms snaked round and grabbed him around the neck, pulling him offstage in a moment of deliberate comedy. The Old Shepherd was interrupted in his ruminations shortly afterwards by a full-blown slapstick interlude as Antigonus entered screaming while a six foot black bear chased him around the audience and off again. The Shepherd's reaction, a shrug to the audience, perfectly encapsulated the production's approach to this scene - it's a ridiculous death and, rather than try to make it serious, they embraced the obvious comic possibilities and made it entertaining. What we lacked in the tragedy of Antigonus was made up for by a conscious shift in tone, a demonstration that we had now entered Bohemia, the laid-back antithesis to the high drama of Sicily.

An excellent Fergal McElherron, having just been eaten, kicked off the second half of the play as Autolycus with a song that veered from the folky to the mock-rocky, complete with hand signals. His energy and humour drove much of this second half, the actor proving himself particularly adept at 'Pick a Pocket or Two' style antics, grabbing purses easily from the Young Shepherd's waist belt. As a comically Oirish pedlar, too, he excelled, with flowing fake beard and a tray of colourful items with which he entertained the on-stage children. Yet this comic role was also moving in places, the edited script leaving Autolycus on stage for most of the Bohemia scenes, meaning that we seemed to 'see' most of the action from his perspective. His ongoing opportunism, while funny, meant that his final meeting with the newly-rich shepherds became something of a revelation to him, his penance seeming genuine as he knelt before them. Of course, his penance couldn't last and it wasn't long before he was stealing grapes from a servant.....

This is becoming a long review, and I'm going to have plenty of opportunity to go into detail when I review it for Shakespeare Bulletin, so I'll wrap up with one final observation. The statue scene worked extremely well, far more so than I'd ever expected it too. Stripped of stage trickery, Hermione simply walked on hidden behind some lords and, when revealed, stood still and silent, her robe flapping in the wind. Her pained expression, combined with her stillness, gave the scene a haunting feel that drew out the 17 years of Leontes' pain, which the actor played up to. Her eventual movements, then, drew a shiver down my spine as the 'statue' awoke. Yet another reminder of how simplicity can often (if not always) be the best approach. Another excellent tour from the Globe, and I'm starting to get the impression that the techniques learned while training at the Globe are even more effective when taken out of that building.

August 11, 2008

Macbeth: Who Is That Bloodied Man? @ The Square2, National Theatre

For two productions only, the National Theatre has opened a new space, the Square2, just outside the main theatre on the South Bank. It's an odd space, a large flat open area with audience standing around on three sides on stepped platforms behind crash barriers on raked platforms. Only a low wall separates it from the riverside walk (low enough for the local chavs to peer over and hurl abuse, sadly), giving the venue a wonderfully exposed feel. Only a mile or so from the Globe, the Square2 provides a very different experience of Shakespeare, the atmosphere more akin to a sporting event on the edges of the real world, rather than closed off from it.

The sporting event comparison is perhaps prompted by the use the production itself made of the space, though. After rave reviews at last year's Edinburgh, Teatr Biuro Podrozy have brought their Macbeth: Who Is That Bloodied Man? to London for a handful of performances. Perhaps better thought of as a performance piece inspired by Shakespeare's play, rather than as a version of it, the Polish company occupied the unusual space in a fascinating and commanding way, utilising motorbikes, flaming firebrands and masked women on stilts to spectacularly fill their sixty minutes.

Very little text remained in this drastically-cut production, and about half of the remaining text was pre-recorded, the actors effectively miming. The production instead concentrated on the visual, using the bare minimum of text to explicate the activity. Only five of the major characters - Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, Banquo, Banquo's Son (Fleance) and The King (Duncan) - remained, creating a simpler and far more linear narrative that gave the company the flexibility to exptend individual moments with representative imagery that explored the significance of Macbeth's fall.

Behind the audience, on a high gantry, stood Hecate, a mezzo-soprano who underscored the action throughout with operatic vocals over music that veered from orchestral to electronic (her voice combining with the recorded text to create a unified "soundtrack" for the performers to act to). The play was bookended with her singing of lines from T.S. Eliot's Ash Wednesday:

Under a juniper tree the bones sang, scattered and shining
We are glad to be scattered, we did little good to each other,
Under a tree in the cool of the day, with the blessing of sand,
Forgetting themselves and each other, united
In the quiet of the desert.

This "Motto", suggesting a peace that only death can bring, made explicit the importance that director Pawel Szkotak placed on death throughout the production. Seven poles, six arranged in a circle around the last, stood tall and upright in the centre of the courtyard area, and a masked figure on stilts entered with a burning brand to light their tops, the poles symbolising those who were to die in the course of Macbeth's ascent (The King, his two Guards, Banquo, the two Murderers and Lady Macbeth). The King here, though, was no saint. Sat on a dais at the far end of the courtyard, messengers roared up to him on motorbikes with reports on enemy munitions, which he received by casually beating them, or in one case even shooting the man in the head. The costumes and bikes were reminiscent of World War II, the King becoming a cruel European dictator. Shortly after, the Defeated King (Cawdor) was brought in, naked and trapped in a wooden cage dragged behind a motorbike. The victorious King clambered on top of the cage to taunt his prisoner and then cut his throat. Altogether, it made for a powerful opening.

The main attraction of the production was the stiltwalking, with the three witches usually appearing on elongated legs that raised them a good eight feet above the ground. These were no ungainly poles, though, but long and graceful spider-legs that the actors could run and even high-kick on. Their movements became terrifying as a result, their strides constantly threatening. The witches reappeared regularly throughout the play, knocking down poles as the deaths mounted up and, increasingly, tortuing Macbeth. The supernatural haunted the living at all turns; here, even Banquo chased an apparition of his son playing with a metal crown and Lady Macbeth threw things at the advancing ghost of Banquo, clutching a bloody head atop stilts. The worst was saved for Macbeth himself. From his first meeting with the Witches, where he repeatedly shot them dead only to have them rise and dance about him, they toyed with him and played upon his bloody nature. In a climactic moment following the murders, the three emerged in a line on stilts, pushing a "Death Machine" (a rolling cylinder with long handle) in which skulls rattled around. They chased Macbeth around the courtyard with the machine, trying to run him over; yet, eventually, Macbeth faced them and stood before the cylinder unafraid, at which the spirits retreated. They returned, in double the numbers, to advance on Macbeth with long logs, which they threw down at the tyrant from on high in his final defeat.

The production's strengths were in these evocative images, and to list them would take forever: the burning corpse of Macbeth, seated upright as Banquo's Son stood before it; the burning strings with which the witches encircled Macbeth and Banquo; the naked Lady Macbeth standing in a tin bath, obscured by darkness as she washed away blood; Banquo's Son riding a toy bike in rings around the increasingly confused Macbeth. Verbal description struggles to capture these images, and I'd strongly recommend looking at these photosfrom their website. Combined, the production gave the impression of being a moving series of snapshots, scenes of nightmarish horror from a linear and uncomplicated descent into evil. Yet there was much that was moving in these images - the child-man Banquo's Son, playing with toys made out of crowns and sticks, was a beacon of innocence in the literal midst of the horror, stopping and staring up in awe at the marching stiltwalkers who accompanied the King. There was even a bizarre attempt at comedy in a long sequence setting up the stage for a banquet where servants danced with brooms and a groom and maid, clearly having an affair, ate fruit and spat it in each other's faces for no obvious reason.

The cast, partly owing to the lack of live dialogue, became part of the tableaux, an element in the design rather than fully-fledged performances in their own right. There was plenty of good work though. Scarily, Piotr Kazmierczak's Macbeth and Jakub Papuga's Banquo were almost identical in looks, which provided an interesting insight into their characters. They appeared together, firing machine guns from a motorbike and sidecar, and both were seen chasing illusory crowns as if both harboured ambitions. Macbeth's orders for Banquo's death immediately after the King's thus became an exercise in tidying up, killing off a potential competitor.

The programme claimed that the performance was "an attempt to see Shakespeare's drama as a crime myth". This isn't the impression I was left with; istead, it came across as a dark fairy tale, a story of demonic intervention and damnation, of weak humans and destructive actions. In this I felt it lacked a depth of reading, partly because of the reduction of all plot and character elements to their absolute basics. This was made up for by a visceral and haunting experience that made human evils terrifyingly clear. Both brutal and beautiful, this was one of the most original and inventive takes on Shakespeare I've ever seen, and no doubt I'll be writing again on it shortly.

August 01, 2008

Cabaret @ San Francisco Playhouse

I'm not going to write a full review of this production, as quite frankly I was on holiday. However, while in San Francisco last week I went to see the San Francisco Playhouse's production of Cabaret. Partly this was because I'd never seen a play in the States before and was curious to see how different the experience would be, and partly because I recently saw Bob Fosse's celebrated film for the first time and was blown away by it. Both production and experience were interesting, so I thought I'd scribble a few notes before it fades completely from my mind.

I read on the site that the Playhouse is, indeed, a professional theatre. While there, I have to admit I hadn't been quite sure. The ticket prices suggested professionals (starting at approximately £20), as did the excellent publicity campaign and the few equity members indicated in the castlist. It's a small venue though, located at the top of a set of stairs next to a nail-and-beauty parlour, which threw us slightly. The cast were largely youthful, and several of them appeared to have day jobs - or, at least, supporting careers. I'd place them as roughly equivalent to a small professional British company like Fail Better, but with their own venue which is, of course, a distinct advantage. I'd be interested to know how wide-ranging this kind of practice is - is it usual for American companies to have their own venue and a part-time/volunteer company, while in the UK it's more usual to have a full-time company and no permanent venue? I digress, though.

With the first two rows of the small auditorium given over to cabaret tables presided over by German-accented waitresses, much had been done to recreate the atmosphere of the Kit Kat Club. A live band on stage looked after the music while the whole theatre was used in the cabaret scenes, the charismatic MC often working his way through the crowd. The audience were lively throughout, perhaps sometimes too so for my tastes (the bloke behind me who put his feet up on the seats in front of him after two minutes and talked throughout the whole performance really irritated me), but the attitude for the evening was one of definite fun.

The cast were generally reasonable. The undoubted highlight was Brian Yates Sharber as the MC, who injected all of his scenes with plenty of gusto and gave the production momentum whenever it flagged. For, unfortunately, there were times when the pace dragged, which struck me as being as much the fault of the play itself as of the cast. The entire subplot with the elderly couple was dull and the songs trite and instantly forgotten - one can easily understand why they were cut for the movie. Another subplot - the prostitute upstairs - was far more entertaining, but didn't seem to particularly go anywhere (and the revelation of her as a Nazi sympathiser particularly jarred).

Lauren English made a decent stab at an English accent as Sally Bowles, and gave a particularly good - and desperate - rendition of the title song. In fact, most of the Kit Kat songs were well-performed, largely thanks to Sharber's energy and good voice. Personally, though, I felt that If You Could See Her Through My Eyes bordered on the distasteful through being played for laughs, the monkey/Jewess clambering into the audience and picking through an audience member's hair. The beauty of that song, certainly as I understand it, comes from the quiet dignity of the woman while the audience laugh at her, allowing the MC's final line "She wouldn't look Jewish at all" to shock and chill the audience. By making her ridiculous, much of this impact was lost. The cabaret dancers were all fine, though the stock of suggestive moves was somewhat limited, Two Ladies in particular feeling almost formulaic in its run through stock sexual maneuveres. That's what we paid to see though, so can't complain!

The main plot was handled well by English and Daniel Krueger, who gave a performance that was far less innocent than I'd expected, his sexuality coming to the fore almost as soon as he arrived in Germany and the actor bringing out the darker, slyer aspects of the character early on. English was excellent throughout, a torrent of unstoppable energy at the start and an increasingly frustrated and trapped woman towards the end, culminating in Cabaret itself.

Ultimately, though, I don't want to spend too much time on this. It was a thoroughly enjoyable night out, and particularly interesting to see an earlier version of the show than is preserved on film. I'm seeing Birmingham Rep's far more high-profile version at the end of the month, so it'll be interesting to compare!

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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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