All entries for August 2011

August 23, 2011

A Woman Killed with Kindness (National) @ The Lyttleton Theatre

The safety curtain went up on my first-ever Heywood production on Saturday, and for the first time in many years I was dumbstruck by the beauty of a set. Lizzie Clachan and Vicki Mortimer had created two Edwardian houses, connecting imperfectly in the centre, realised in lavish detail. In the Frankfords' house, a large balcony was reached by a spiral staircase, and the homely decorations of the ground floor included an upright piano, delicate flowers and intimate tables for playing cards. The home of the Mountfords, meanwhile, was far more austere - a wide staircase curved upwards towards a landing whose wall was dominated by framed watercolours, and the ground floor was dominated by a grand piano and an imposing entrance. Both rooms were lit from the side by "natural" light streaming in at windows, as well as nascent electrical lights. Telephones and gramophones stood proudly in position, and the wide space of the stage allowed the homes to feel both lived in and receptive to scenes of rapid movement. It was truly stunning.

It's a shame, then, that Katie Mitchell's production wasn't nearly as sophisticated as its design. The side-by-side houses pandered to a central conceit: that Anne Frankford and Susan Mountford were essentially twins, trapped in their dollhouses. This was Heywood as conceived through Ibsen, full of business and naturalistic movement. A large case of servants bustled about the stage in stylised scene changes, which showed the passage of time as plants were moved in and out, bits of furniture rearranged, floors swept and artworks changed. During these slickly-choreographed but overlong and chaotically-scored sequences, the mistresses were themselves picked up and put into their appropriate places, the message clearly being that the women were only one more bit of household furniture, property to be placed as the masters saw fit.

The simultaneous staging meant that, while one scene was taking place, silent action was frequently occurring on the other side of the stage. Anne and Susan would pluck at piano keys at the same time, underlining the unspoken bond between the pair, or bits of dialogue would overlap. While this aimed for synchronicity, it rather downplayed the very key differences between the two. Mitchell's production was geared towards delivering a sledgehammer message about the oppression of women by men in a society that treats women as objects, but this had the disadvantage of reducing Susan and Anne to near-empty receptacles for an overly-simplistic feminist agenda.

This is not to say, of course, that Heywood's play does not lend itself to a feminist reading; quite the reverse. The Susan storyline recalls Measure for Measure in its female protagonist's resistance of an unwanted sexual suit that becomes blackmail; and in her brother's demand that she yield her chastity for his sake. Sandy McDade was wonderful in this scene. As soon as she realised what was happening, she screamed in frustration, and attempted to run out of the door three times, held back repeatedly by her brother and suitor in an horrific scene of entrapment. Her subsequent shriek of yielding was particularly upsetting, and the bemusement of the two men even more so - they were not only forcing her to marry, but clearly could not comprehend the scale of the issue for her. However, a subsequent added scene of Susan attempting to hang herself from the banister, only to be prevented by the appearance of the servant, went too far in trying to stress the point, and did a disservice to McDade's intense performance. We did not need this in order to understand the scale of the betrayal - far better for this was the much subtler sequence in which we saw Sir Francis and Susan return home from walking on three occasions, on each of which she refused him a kiss.

Similarly, the unkindness heaped on Anne following the discovery of her affair was handled obviously and too crudely. Mitchell showed little interest in the marriage between Frankford and Anne, or in the reasons that drove her to her liaison with Wendoll. A scene immediately after the wedding reception saw the married couple go to bed, only for Anne to emerge in pain following a traumatic first sexual experience, her white nightdress spattered with blood. She sponged her legs as an elderly maid servant wrung her hands, and Frankford emerged from the bedroom calling in some confusion for his wife. No more was done, however, to hint at marital problems, and Paul Ready's sympathetic performance as Frankford attempted to establish a loving relationship, despite his long absences. As such, although the production took delight in Sebastian Armesto's Wendoll being thrown naked out of the house, the violence shown by Frankford to Anne felt too much of a shift in character.

The production appeared to want us to sympathise with Anne, through the continued connections to Susan, her emotional response to the loss of her children, and to the vulnerability shown in the earliest scene. This came at the cost of any particularly nuanced exploration of the complexities of Heywood's play, the very idea of the woman being "killed with kindness". It came dangerously close, particularly in the dark and surreptitious snooping of Frankford prior to the discovery of the lovers, to blaming Frankford for disrupting the lovers' affair that had sustained the tranquility of the house thus far. While Ready did a fine job with the emotional inconsistency of the cuckold and the conflicted response of the man who wants to erase his former lover completely (a beautiful moment saw him burst out of his bedroom and scream "No, no, no!" as Anne allowed herself a farewell tinkle of the piano), the production did far more of a disservice to Liz White's Anne, who was treated and played passively throughout. In an overly-determined and naturalistic production, it was striking how little time was given to the affair and how simplistically her contrition and sorrow was depicted. For a production that so clearly wanted to give its women a voice, it was surprising just how silent she was.

There were some decent performances elsewhere. The servants were good, particularly Gawn Grainger's Nicholas, who had the evening's most moving moment as he bravely stood up to Frankford to inform his master of his wife's infidelity. Leo Bill also did good work as Sir Charles Mountford, presenting the character as a complex toff: insistent on maintaining the family's dignity, he was nonetheless conflicted over every action he took, and grew gradually more broken as his freedom and riches were stripped away. The desperation with which he gave his sister over to his arch-enemy was affecting.

A final scene saw a whole other set appear downstage, as a downbeat hospital room emerged from beneath the stage. Anne died slowly in bed, watched over by her husband and tearful servants, in a sentimental end that continued to fail to either take a justifiable side or offer anything beyond the simplistic. It was left to Susan to deliver the play's title as a moral, her anger still resonant in her voice. It was a richly-staged production, but a lack of focus and an overly-busy aesthetic ultimately left this an unsatisfactory experience. The wry humour of Heywood's play (particularly the card scene) and the complexity of the play's gender dynamics called for something far more sophisticated. Still, it's great to have Heywood back on a main stage.

August 20, 2011

The Summoning of Everyman (Shakespeare Institute Players) @ Holy Trinity Church

Everyman is a genuinely powerful text. Whether you’re religious or not, this anonymous medieval morality play gets to the absolute nub of the big questions. What can we take with us? What is the point of life? And at the end of it all, are we ultimately alone?

The Shakespeare Institute Players made a virtue of their usual performance venue being out of commission by doing a site-specific piece in Holy Trinity Church. Director Jason Burg is researching the use of churches as performance spaces, and this production drew on its surroundings throughout. Good Deeds lay crumped under a blanket leaning against the altar, the Doctor waited to welcome people into the main space, Five Wits referred to the church’s presentation copy of the Bible, and Knowledge gestured to the glorious stained glass windows that dominated the space. It was an evocative space for a religious message, and one which the production treated respectfully.

The staging was simple, and made the most of the episodic structure of the play. Harriet Laing's Everyman entered the choir from the nave surrounded by the rest of the company, who voiced God collectively, standing round the edges of the space. Helen Osborne's black-clad Death swaggered into the space shortly thereafter, addressing God with a deferential yet slightly mocking tone, emphasised by a quiet chuckle as she prepared to claim Everyman's soul. Formal patterning organised the progression of characters: Victoria Mountford's Good Deeds was huddled up under a blanket at the altar, Cecilia Kendall-White's Knowledge strolled around the altar space, and the assorted kindred and flaky qualities passed from the choir into the nave of the church as they forsook Everyman, returning to worldly places - where the Doctor finally emerged from, as well as Everyman's wicker coffin.

Everyman was played as a woman (Chaka Khan jokes were restricted to the programme), a decision which saw the company use obvious materialist stereotypes to comic effect - Everyman was entranced by the pair of beautiful shoes that John Curtis's Goods held up for her, slipping into a longing voice even as she admonished Goods. The obsession of this Everyman with appearances and possessions was made obvious from the start, as she appeared adjusting her bright red top. She was gloriously oblivious to Death's intent, and her initial selfish shock progressed through the piece to anger and panic, and finally to something approaching transcendent acceptance.

The play is powerful in itself. The gradual forsaking of Everyman by her kin, her Fellowship and her Goods was a straightforward series of vignettes, made comic by the Texan drawl of Red Smucker and Drew Hippel as Kindred and Cousin, and the fey performance of Curtis as Goods. It was with the appearance of Knowledge that the play began to take on its more forceful and harrowing aspects. The scene of penance, presided over by the clerical Confession, saw Everyman kneeling and flogging herself hard with a quite nasty-looking piece of rope, while Knowledge looked coldly on. The subsequent emergence of Good Deeds added an impression of safety to the subsequent scenes, framing Everyman's journey within an instructive context, but this made the second set of abjurrations all the more hard. Beauty, Strength, Five Wits and Discretion were presented as a formidable set of companions who Everyman placed her faith in. As they began leaving, one by one, her terror was moving. The fear of death, prompted by the appearance of the coffin, was effectively captured in these scenes; and, as Laing lay down in the coffin, one felt the import of the issues that the text was confronting.

The experience of seeing a secular production of a didactic and Catholic-inflected theological piece in an Anglican church was an unusual one, and in some ways it feels odd to put on such an instructive play as a piece of historical interest when it still holds such a powerful vernacular message about the importance of good deeds and of recognising one's own mortality. A thought-provoking evening, and one that left me wishing I had a chance to see Mankind in the near future too.

A Midsummer Night's Dream (RSC) @ The Royal Shakespeare Theatre

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It is traditional to frame the main action of A Midsummer Night’s Dream within a particularly threatening Athens, allowing the comedy to stand in contrast to the formality and danger of the court. Nancy Meckler’s new production for the RSC was no exception. Theseus (Jo Stone-Fewings) was a London mob boss and Hippolyta (Pippa Nixon) his young trophy bride. Wrapped up in an extravagant fur coat, Hippolyta sulked on a luxurious couch, shrinking away from Theseus’ advances. Theseus, in turn, struggled to understand why she failed to respond to his presents of flowers and jewellery, brought forth at the snap of his fingers by a waiting lackey.

The bare basement set pointed to the emptiness of Theseus’ gestures. Characters entered and exited via a rickety metal stairwell running down from the ceiling, and entered a dilapidated garage space populated with goons and prostitutes. Theseus presided over this seedy court, dispensing judgements on his henchman’s daughter with a casual air. A disgusted Hippolyta spat at his feet after his vow that Hermia should die if she didn’t obey her father.

Fundamentally, however, something about this society didn’t work. The play opened in semi-darkness, into which the Mechanicals were summoned to fix the electrics, descending into a trapdoor and clanging about until the power came back on. The play ended in the same way, as the bergomask dance (accompanied by live rock band) finally blew the delicate fuses, and the muttering actors descended once more into the bowels of the stage. This time, however, rather than the stark neon lights of the opening scene, a dreamlike blue descended over the stage, allowing Puck, Oberon and Titania to enter to bless the house.

This idea permeated Meckler’s production, signified in the lights of the fairy scenes that danced on fingers, chased one another around the stage or shone from the heavens. The fairy world was liberated, but also in control of its own environment. Conversely, the Athenians were shown to have no control whatsoever. As the lovers moved further into the wood, their clothes were torn off by branches and rocks (the fairies using their bodies as obstacles) and they became increasingly muddied and dishevelled. This was particularly funny as Lucy Briggs-Owen’s immaculate Helena, now torn and bedraggled, wailed “I am as ugly as a bear”. The humour, slightly cruelly, was in watching spoiled brats being made extremely uncomfortable.

Imogen Doel, standing in at short notice for Matti Houghton as Hermia, did a fine job filling in. Her diminutive stature and confident voice made her an appealing yet formidable Hermia. There were moments in the ensemble lovers’ scenes where the production lost its rhythm slightly, struggling for dynamism in the interactions, but Doel did a fine job, particularly in the physical scenes. Demetrius and Lysander’s attempts to stop her from hurting Hermia saw them throw cushions at her, dive between her legs, sit on her and, in turn, get kicked in the crotch, thrown off a sofa and shoved to the side. This Hermia was strident even in love, though, taking the soft pillows and sleeping bag for herself and forcing Lysander to sleep on his coat.

Throughout, Briggs-Owen’s Helena whined. This was by far the most narcissistic Helena I’ve ever seen. Even Lysander and Demetrius nodded off as she offered her long complaints against Hermia, and Briggs-Owen drew attention to the fact that Helena always brought things back to herself, viewing everything as a conspiracy against her. Briggs-Owen has a particular way of stressing the verse line where one would least expect it. This made for a peculiarly self-conscious delivery that suggested Helena’s blind self-obsession, and her shock at being left onstage alone manifested in a rising screech of self-pity that choked the actual words under a mess of sobs. It was an extraordinary vocal performance, made flesh in her awkwardly flailing limbs and wild gestures. She contrasted finely with the compact, self-possessed Hermia, and her neuroses left Alex Hassell’s Demetrius screaming in frustration.

The hysterics of the lovers were in contrast to Arsher Ali’s calm, sardonic Puck, underplayed to the point of being barely noticeable. He carried a broom and wore fifty or more ties under his long brown jacket, but his casual mockery of the stage action felt too disengaged. Stone-Fewings and Nixon, however, made for a wonderful Oberon and Titania. Their sexual energy was obvious, particularly as they stripped and then re-dressed one another as they transformed back into Theseus and Hippolyta in preparation for the final act. They were also played seriously, which added much-needed gravitas to the production. The evening’s most effective moment came as Titania sadly explained the effects of their feuding on the mortal world. The lights dimmed, the giggling fairies stood still, and Nixon evoked a world in disarray. A similar sobriety was lent to the description of the Indian boy, with one of the fairies acting out the boy’s mother, cradling a blanket before freezing as Titania described her death.

It was left to the Mechanicals to deliver the belly laughs, a responsibility which they accepted with gusto. Marc Wootton’s incorrigible Bottom dominated the stage, whether forcing the other actors to dive out of his way as he threw himself onto a sofa or hee-hawing his country ballads. The ass costume was created out of what was on stage as he left to await his cue: his blonde Herculean wig was styled into two long ears, and the actors’ cans of food became hooves. The inevitable dangling phallus was a bratwurst that Snug had previously been munching on, an addition by which Titania was particularly enthralled. The production squandered a lot of its laughs – the chaos of his immediate revelation was confused rather than amusing, and moments of excellent delivery by Christopher Godwin’s Quince and Felix Hayes’s Snug passed so quickly that they barely registered. The delivery of parts, for example, ended with Hayes waiting for a non-existent script, and Quince answered his confusion with a rather fey clawing action that was perfectly timed, but lost amid the movement of other actors.

The culminating performance of Pyramus and Thisbe was a suitable highlight, hitting the usual beats (Starveling’s annoyance at the interruptions of the audience, Quince’s nerves during the prologue) with a few innovations. Chiké Okonkwo as Snout became a human punchbag, repeatedly stabbed by Pyramus’s wooden sword and barely able to keep the over-acting lovers apart as they attempted to push through the wall. Eventually, he gave up, and Bottom and Michael Grady-Hall’s Flute were shocked to suddenly find themselves kissing, to general hilarity. Following the embarrassment of all, the two ran off-stage for the next scene, and were then revealed snogging passionately behind the temporary curtain that the players had set up. After Quince tore them apart, the two continued the scene, with fond glances and the occasional stroke. Pyramus was particularly entertaining during his extended death scenes, as he rolled around the stage for the benefit of each set of lovers, before crawling surreptitiously back into position.

This wasn’t the most exciting or original Dream the RSC has mounted in recent years, but it was effortlessly entertaining. The real magic came in the quiet moments of reflection, when the production achieved something transcendent in the stillness between the chaos and hinted at the underlying implications of the disruption they were causing. Even at its most superficial level, though, this was a funny and well-performed production that kept a young audience in stitches throughout.

This review first appeared at Shakespeare Revue.

August 16, 2011

The Globe Mysteries @ Shakespeare's Globe

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The Bardathon is going medieval on its readers this week. On Friday I'll be seeing Everyman performed over Shakespeare's grave in Holy Trinity Church, and this afternoon, on a whim, I took a break from referencing in the British Library to catch the Globe's new production of Tony Harrison's Mysteries on the other side of the river.

I didn’t catch the original outings of Harrison’s text at the National, but the Globe’s version is a paired down version of that multiple-part play. Fans of the Bible might have been surprised at the speed at which the Old Testament was dispensed with: Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah, and Abraham and Isaac were rattled through in the first forty minutes, and then the scene cut straight to Mary and Joseph. The Nativity and Passion took up most of the remainder of the show, with a few interpolated episodes – including Mak the Sheep Stealer. After the Crucifixion, the play then focussed primarily on Catholic mythology: the scourging of Hell by Jesus, the Ascension of Jesus and the death of Mary, and finally the Last Judgement. Creation to Revelation in just under three hours is quite a feat.

My main issues with the production were to do with Harrison’s text. As a literary critic I appreciated what he’d created: a combination of a deeply archaic Yorkshire dialect, spiced up with a few choice modern epiphets, in the form of alliterative poetry. As an audience member, however, this was deeply frustrating. The repeated alliteration in the heavy accents (and please do remember I’m a Northern boy myself – this isn’t a culture clash) made too much of the dialogue simply unintelligible. This was most obvious in the Crucifixion scene, where the fast banter of the four Knights sounded like a continuous, almost wordless slur.

With this script, the production needed a game cast, and happily I’ve never seen a company enjoy its work so much. Paul Hunter’s Lucifer and Philip Cumbus’s Gabriel set the tone early on. Cumbus read a Prologue, during which he threatened to ram mobile phones up our arses if they were to go off, and established a winking rapport with the audience. Hunter set up in competition, his smug Lucifer raising his eyebrows at the crowd as he toyed with his subordinate angels. Sat in God’s throne, sipping a cup of tea, he was the consummate charismatic villain.

Director Deborah Bruce and designer Jonathan Fensom established a DIY aesthetic for the production, evoking the origin of the Mysteries in craftsmanship and guilds. An upper level served for Heaven, with a comfy chair for God and sunbeams receding into the distance. The trap was opened for Hell, spewing foul smoke over the stage. Props and scenery were hand-created. Noah’s Flood and the River Jordan were evoked by a long blue banner held across the stage at waist-height, with a design of fishes painted on it. A ladder was used for the Ascension, and balloons represented the Tree of Knowledge. This aesthetic was foregrounded in God’s Creation, for which David Hargreaves’s cardigan-wearing deity dragged on a utility cart piled high with packing crates, from which Adam and Eve emerged.

God watched over the action from Heaven, accompanied by a Chorus of cheerful, childlike angels who wore cassocks with painted wings. Gabriel, wearing a prefect badge, was chief among these, and they served as invisible stagehands, helping and providing for the human characters in a benign manner, and reacting in horror to Lucifer’s usurpation of God’s throne. They provided the production’s main unifying aspect; without this, it would largely have been a series of disparate episodes. Happily, Jesus’s descent to Hell saw him retrieve the Old Testament characters after an hilarious confrontation with Lucifer and his cronies – a chavvy Beelzebub and Ribald as a Hell’s Angel.

Amid the joking (Noah’s Wife knitting football scarves ahead of the FA Cup! Knights taking photos of each other in front of the cross!) were some serious moments. The production lingered over the anguish of Joe Caffrey’s Abraham as he prepared to kill his son, and the quiet death of Mary in a wheelchair was delicately-handled. Poignantly, as the older Mary (Helen Weir) left the stage, her younger counterpart from the Nativity scenes (Ony Uhiara) appeared in Heaven next to Jesus. More spectacular, and more horrific, was the slaughter of the innocents. Mothers had blankets torn from their arms by soldiers, which unravelled to spill dozens of dummies over the stage. Then Hunter’s Herod was revealed upstage, standing over a mesh of bloodied dolls. The effect was muted by the speed at which this fast-paced production moved on, but it lingered nonetheless.

Most powerful, unsurprisingly, were the Passion scenes. William Ash’s Jesus was a clean-shaven, dreadlocked and sprightly man, wearing white shirt and jeans and thus apparently on loan from Jesus Christ Superstar (see also: Cumbus’s Judas all in black and wearing a leather jacket). The length of time given to these scenes allowed for some lovely touches. Notably, the company received a spontaneous and prolonged round of applause when, during the Last Supper, they suddenly froze in the positions of the figures in Da Vinci’s painting; and Peter’s denial was surprisingly moving. The most powerful moments were reserved for Jesus, though. The production’s first half closed as he moved slowly round the yard, hauling the enormous wooden crossbar of his cross, while the company sang a deep and powerful dirge from the stage. The singing was powerful throughout, including a sober number by the souls of the Old Testament.

For the Crucifixion itself, an enormous girder was set up which, with the effort of most of the company, was eventually hauled to an upright position in the pit, with Jesus hanging high over the heads of the groundlings. This coup de theatre took too long to set up and dismantle, but allowed for the powerful effect of his final, screamed words. His subsequent appearances to his disciples were entertaining, particularly as he munched on chips to prove his substance.

The climax, though, came with the good-humoured division of the groundlings into the Saved and the Damned, with barriers put up down the centre and some good-humoured ribbing as angels chose who looked dodgy. For it was the audience who were ultimately at the centre of the entire performance. Whether being called upon to choose between Jesus and Barabbas, being taunted by Lucifer or asked to praise Mary, the production repeatedly reminded us that it was (historically, of course) all for our edification. Jesus delivered a final lecture to us about the need to help others, before joining the rest of the company for an informal jig. Obviously this was a secular production, which qualified its values carefully (the image of the dead babies particularly resounded) and particularly enjoyed presenting the image of a shepherd kissing a sheep disguised as a baby in the entirely un-Biblical “Mak” episode; but at its heart lay a basic appeal to community and mutual awareness that I found effective. A lovely revival.

August 12, 2011

Something to get excited about

Cheek by Jowl are doing 'Tis Pity She's a Whore. This is a very good thing.

August 07, 2011

The Two Noble Kinsmen (Just Enough) @ The Dell, Stratford–upon–Avon

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Another landmark! A little over five years ago, I saw an excellent rehearsed reading of The Two Noble Kinsmen at the Swan. Since then, I've been waiting for a chance to see a full production. It's the last of the plays in the universally-accepted thirty-eight that I'd not seen a "proper" version of, and now I've got the full set. Though of course the real achievement will be when someone decides that mounting a major Edward III is a good idea. I may still be waiting for a little while.

Just Enough, led by John East, took the production from Bath's Ustinov Theatre to the Dell in Stratford, where it played to a large crowd drawn by the rare chance to see Shakespeare and Fletcher's play. Happily, unlike last week's Cardenio, the company didn't have to compete with Holy Trinity's bell-ringing and the actors were remarkably clear throughout. I maintain, though, that the Dell in its current shape is an inherently unkind space for theatre. Where the original Dell hollow (still there, and I don't know why it's not used) was a narrow space that contained its audience and allowed actors to focus their efforts, the flat wide area now used encourages audiences to spread out across a wide area and, even screaming at full volume, a great deal gets lost.

For this production, the deficiencies of the space became part of the play's style. Delivered in a loud and highly rhetorical style, the company emphasised the play's formality. Danny Shayler's Theseus, in particular, stood out as emblematic of authority rather than a rounded individual, his pronouncements articulating his official public persona. While this worked well for the main plot, the company had to work much harder to present the subplot in a more natural voice. Phoebe Kemp, as the Jailer's Daughter, presented the scenes of her growing madness from the front of the bare stage, telling us rather than embodying her condition. In this sense, her most effective moments were the quietest - in the middle of a series of "Hey nonny nonnies" she suddenly stopped and stood still, looking into the heavens for a noticably long patch. This simple moment was effective and heartbreaking, demonstrating her dissociation from reality far better than any number of childlike songs.

The only set for the production consisted of three step ladders, arranged for simple effects. Some of the images were striking - Zach Lipman and Matthew Harrison-James as Arcite and Palamon chained to the same simple structure, for example, and poking their heads between the rungs to gaze at Sorcha Finch-Murray's Emilia; and the goddesses representing Venus letting petals fall on Palamon's head. Most effective was the conversion of the ladders into a guillotine for Palamon, with the Jailer aiming to slam down another ladder as the blade. Branches of leaves stood for the grotto where Palamon hides, and flowers appeared throughout - firstly those presented by the Wooer to the Daughter, and later worn in the disturbed Daughter's hair, in a clear nod to Ophelia.

The formal patterning and visual echoes offered a clear structure for the slight story to hang from. In the opening scene, the three queens emerged from the opposite end of the stage, veiled and in black, as the wedding procession of Theseus and Hippolyta approached, and delivered their laments in sober and deliberately archaic fashion. There was something even witch-like about them as they held hands and chanted together. The production kept three women onstage as a silent chorus for the majority of the action (though the specific actors rotated): holding up scenery, helping with costume changes or cheering on the battles.

The simple delivery of the text was broken up with a number of interesting physical sequences, some of which worked better than others. Emilia's silent appearances as an object of contest or desire saw her swaying and posing in too obvious a way to be really effective, and the opening "battle" - presented in a choreographed series of foot-stamping, criss-crossing movements - went on far longer than it needed to and rendered the action somewhat unclear. However, other moments worked spectacularly, not least the final battle between Palamon and Arcite. Emilia stood downstage and delivered her lines as a servant ran in and out with reports. Behind her, the stepladders were piled into a pyramid structure, on either side of which the two kinsmen stood. They wrapped their chains (a recurring motif) around the top of the pyramid and began a tug of war in which they tried to pull the other onto the pyramid, clashing the metal with their chains. This was an incredibly effective sequence that powerfully conveyed the importance and impotence of this struggle, as the two strained hard while barely moving.

Lipman and Harrison-James were the production's strengths as the kinsmen. The delivery favoured the eventual victor, Palamon, as the "hero", giving particular emphasis to Arcite's "treachery. However, the two formed an interesting relationship, partly comic but always heartfelt, especially in their repeated embraces. Their arming scene saw the two of them daub each other with war paint, an intimate and touching gesture that marked the peculiarity of their conflict. Among the other performances, Callum Buckler stood out as a gentle and moving Wooer, who told the Doctor of his former place in the Daughter's heart with a modest and defeated sadness. The production's warmest moment came when he finally removed his fake mask to kiss her in his own person, before picking her up and carrying her offstage.

Music was used intelligently throughout. The Jailer's Daughter had a trombone which, while making no literal sense, allowed her to adopt a range of interesting mannerisms - kissing it and dancing with it, using it as a telescope and providing a soundtrack to her own deflated expectations. Theseus played guitar, and accompanied himself during his final formal announcement prior to the duel, standing amid the audience. The company also sang a number of Renaissance songs to cover scene changes and underscore key action, lending the piece a simple but effective atmosphere.

East has a good eye for tableaux, and the final arrangement was strong - Arcite, after being thrown from his horse (presented by three women, and perhaps more comic than it intended to be) was laid on a red cloth and dragged to centre-stage. Palamon and Emilia kneeled either side of him while the rest of the court stood over. As the Epilogue detached herself from the tableau and came into the audience to deliver her lines, the rest of the cast smiled, presenting themselves in the manner of a reunited family portrait. Following this with a pleasant jig, the production made a strong case for the entertainment value of this neglected play. At only 90 minutes, and on such a small scale, it achieved plenty within its modest constraints and whetted the appetite for a larger-scale production in the future. One can only hope.

August 05, 2011

Titus Andronicus (Action To The Word) @ C+1, Edinburgh

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After having seen some 250-odd performances of plays and adaptations of plays by Shakespeare and his contemporaries, I hit something of a landmark last night - my first English-language production of Titus Andronicus, the last play in the established canon which I'd only seen in translation. Coincidentally, this was also my debut show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, which I've been looking forward to attending for years.

Action to the Word are a young company specialising in Shakespeare, whose Titus had played at a previous Festival to some acclaim. Fast, violent and sexual, this noisy production embraced the play's physicality and set out, if not to shock, then at least to confront the play in all its unpleasantness. It's a fairly obvious way for a modern company to approach Titus, confronting its audience with a blitzkreig of music, nudity, blood and cruelty, and I think I would have been more impressed by a subtler take, but there's no denying the raw power of the play when presented at full tilt.

The play's aesthetic was influenced by modern gothic subcultures, combining Germanic raves with S&M fantasy. Tamora's nurse wore killer stilettos, black PVC skirt and a gravity-defying bodice under her medical cap; the Goths of the play's later acts were mostly represented by three vamps in red corsets who couldn't keep their hands off each other and hissed ferally at Aaron; and Camilla Rockley's Tamora wore a succession of leather outfits. Under the influence of the Goths, Rome became decadent: the hunting party overseen by Titus was a rave in which bare male bodies and fetishised female bodies - including Lavinia and Bassianus - gyrated to a soundtrack made up of Muse, Placebo and similar music.

While it is tempting to sexualise the entire society in response to the transgressions of the play, I do wonder if this is necessarily to the play's dramatic benefit; if a play is going to be noisy from start to finish, how do you make a particular scream effective? I felt that some of the play's most significant travesties - the heads of Titus's sons, for example - lost their impact by being part of an aesthetic of more general horror; and this in turn meant that when the production did want to make a scene stand out, it inevitably chose to go entirely over the top. Martin McCreadie's Chiron and Stevie Raine's Demetrius were strapped to a swivelling table with a bloodied face painted on it, which was then pivotted so the two were upside down. Thomas Christian's Titus then played gleefully with a number of potential torture instruments including a hacksaw, before settling on an electric drill, with which he lacerated the victims' stomachs while other cast members poured whole bags of blood over the two Goths. The ongoing effect was one of rising hysteria, accelerating into a heightened state of chaos, and it was an effect the company handled deftly. Fundamentally, however, there seems to be a risk with this approach of pornographising physical and sexual violence and, while I don't think Action to the Word did this, there was little salutary purpose to the graphic depictions.

The rape of Lavinia was extremely well-choreographed, and benefitted from being slower than much of the rest of the play owing to being set to John Murphy's extraordinary "In the House - In a Heartbeat". While the scene inevitably concluded with the brothers carrying out extremely violent acts against Lavinia (throwing her to each other, grabbing her crotch, forcing her onto her knees etc. before carrying her out), the scene's power came as she appealed to the still Tamora while the brothers snickered and loped around the edges of the stage. The scene was prepared for in Bassianus and Lavinia's scornful treatment of Tamora, mocking the empress with unwise arrogance. In one beautiful moment, Rockley slowly turned her head to rest her eyes on Hannah Lee's Lavinia, the deliberation of her movement more terrifying than any amount of blood. As the music built following Bassianus' murder, the lines became lost under the swelling horror of the scene, Lavinia's screams becoming ever more piercing.

Christian's Titus, with a Geordie accent that really worked for the character, contrasted especially well with Simon Cotton's Saturninus. Cotton was one of the production's most important aspects, a character who was almost entirely still and spoke his lines with a sarcastic drawl and petulant tone. This politician was removed from the pervasive sexuality of the play and thus acted as a welcome breath of fresh air, forcing a subtler approach which allowed the actors more room to maneuvere, as in Tamora's faux-diplomatic appeals to him and pretences of innocence. His careful speech contrasted with Titus's brisker but more free voice. Quick to anger and quick again to be placated, Titus was unpredictable even in his sanity. While the murder of Mutius was cut, the speed at which he put a knife to Lucius' throat was disquieting, and his rage against his family as powerful as his shock at finding himself in Saturninus' displeasure.

As the play went on, Christian brought out the humour in Titus with particular skill. His jokes at Lavinia's expense felt cruel, but his humour was shown to have a manipulative purpose, carefully modulating his voice to shout at opportune moments and keep his enemies in a state of panic. His first laughs were the most poignant, as he giggled and then told Marcus that he had no tears left to shed, his face becoming momentarily blank. Even as the comedy became more frenetic (and I particularly disliked the "comic" reactions of Chiron and Demetrius to Titus's torture weapons, and Lavinia's enjoyment of the scene, which tended too far toward parody), Titus kept enough dignity to keep us invested in his fate. The only slight stumble was in his murder of Lavinia, for which the action was slowed momentarily but not enough to get across the emotional impact that was implied in Marcus and Lucius's reactions.

Director Alexandra Spencer-Jones also understudied Marcus, and did a superlative job, despite confusion throughout over whether the character was being referred to as "brother" or "sister". Spencer-Jones brought a necessary dignity to her scenes, particularly in the discovery of Lavinia where she gently embraced the naked and traumatised girl, helped her into a jacket and supported her offstage. That she had taken up the role in a little over four hours after the regular actor sustained an injury is nothing short of extraordinary. I was less interested in Lucius, who Matt Curran played as quite wet and passive (to amusing effect when he first encountered the ravenous Goths), and the scenes of the Andronici were some of the biggest casualties of the cuts necessary to cram the play into an hour and a half - I was particularly disappointed not to see the fly-killing scene.

There were some lovely moments at the fringes of the production, however. The retention of the Clown was extremely welcome, and Richard Booth gave a wonderfully bumbling performance with Titus and then before the disgusted Saturninus. When he was dragged offstage to his hanging, still oblivious to what was happening, the production demonstrated real heart. Tom Whitelock as the Young Lucius delivered his parcel to Chiron and Demetrius with an interesting and believable mix of fear and defiance. I was also impressed throughout by Adrian DeCosta Carnegie's Aaron, an articulate and physical performance that, in one wonderful early scene, included the single-handed domination of both Chiron and Demetrius during their violent fraternal tussle. Carnegie, Raine and McCreadie made for an always entertaining triple-act, leering over their enemies and in constant physical contact with one another. The murder of Emma-Jane Martin's Nurse was a peculiarly unpleasant moment in the casual manner with which all three treated it.

Ultimately, the production's general unpleasantness was its weakest point, and this was particularly the case in the final chaotic scene, where Titus effectively threw the pie onto the table and force-fed bits of it to Tamora before pushing her face in it to suffocate her. The visceral qualities of the production were perfectly justifiable, but distracted too much from the more subtle aspects of the performances; and crucially, there was almost no time to react to the horror. If it had been a little less rushed, the depth of the production would have been much greater; as it was, this was an effective Titus that left me feeling bludgeoned and exhausted - and for this play, happily, those don't have to be negatives.

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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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