All entries for September 2006

September 24, 2006

A moment of excitement

Words cannot express how excited I am about this production…..

The Ninja Hamlet

Coming soon- Hallowe’en!

September 21, 2006

Cymbeline @ The Swan Theatre

Without beating around the bush, this production was simply breathtaking, one of the most complete pieces of theatre I’ve seen in a long time, and the perfect antidote to the sober and dull ‘Measure For Measure’ of last week. I’ve seen a lot of Kneehigh Theatre’s work in the past, but this was without the best I’ve seen so far, and one of the highlights of the Complete Works Festival too.

Cymbeline promotional image

Out went Shakespeare’s text, to be replaced by a new and vibrant modern-language text by the company. Kneehigh’s approach is an ensemble one, heavily rooted in music, physicality, direct storytelling and a wicked sense of humour, and they cut straight to the heart of the text.

It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, and Act One saw the most walkouts I’ve noticed yet for any production. If you’re not expecting it, an Italy filled with drag queens and loud dance music, an introductory exposition from an elderly housewife called Joan and a singer dressed as a chav bellowing from the balcony can be quite intimidating.

Where this production scored most highly was in the detail. A remote controlled car (which features prominently on the promotional poster) delivered the post; men in anoraks watched the unfolding action with massive hand-held spotlights; the Queen carried a box of medication around with her at all times with which she influenced her men. In terms of visual interest, there was never a dull moment.

Larger set-pieces included an extended wordless opening, with flowers, photographs and teddies pinned up to the set in rememberance of Cymbeline’s kidnapped children, a war which focused on a massive board game around which Cymbeline moved his troops and blew things up, a beautiful song in mourning for the two ‘dead’ bodies and a spectacularly choreographed wooing and bedroom scene where Imogen and Iachimo moved around each other in a slow yet amazingly fluid dance.

Elsewhere, there were fantastic character moments- the Queen and Cloten shared a few shiveringly inappropriate moments, Imogen’s cries of “Where’s his head?” moved from the funny to the unbearably tragic, Cymbeline shook off the Queen and donned his suit in preparation for war and Pisanio – here a maid – fell for Iachimo and killed a (puppet) deer brutally onstage.

This was about the ensemble and the finished piece rather than any individual performance, though. Kneehigh are storytellers, and this production entertained, moved, enthralled and made a difficult and little-known play one of the most exciting productions of the year. Truly special.

September 16, 2006

Practising Theatre with John Barton @ The Swan Theatre

This morning’s special event was a two hour workshop with advisory director John Barton and about 15 members of the current RSC ensemble. A packed out ground floor of the Swan Theatre watched the co-founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company take the actors through two speeches from ‘Henry V’- the Chorus at the start of Act Four and the Epilogue.

Barton’s approach was a simple one- to have the cast reading out lines in turn and then raise questions about the delivery and sense, then getting them to read again with those things borne in mind.

John Barton

The result was a very interesting look at ways of delivering a text designed as a direct address to an audience. The group worked as both individuals- re-reading their particular lines over and over to create certain effects- and as an ensemble, following on their speeches from one another to keep a flow and coherent whole.

This was mostly done with the actors sitting in the front row of the audience. After a while, though, Barton got small groups up on stage, using movement and a feel of togetherness on the stage to enhance the text- one group huddling together and addressing the Chorus to each other as well as to the audience, the other moving around each other and taking turns to come forward.

Barton made many interesting points, too numerous to go into here, including distinctions between storytelling and acting and fine detail about changes in pace and direction within the speeches. He stressed the importance of getting ‘off-text’- of going with the feel of the thing and ignoring the niceties of the exact words, particularly when approaching a text cold as here.

The main entertainment came from the good-natured ribbing between the actors, though- Barton particularly coming to head with Tamsin Greig over a particular line which he made her read over and over, resulting in her eventually lapsing into comedy for an over-exaggerated reading of boredom into the text- which Barton retorted to by commending it!

The final part of the morning consisted of a few volunteers performing the epilogue, stepping forward to applause from the audience and delivering the text as a finale to ‘Henry V’. After some very good readings, Barton’s instructions were to imagine coming to it as an improvised speech at the end of a performance, and they redid them. To wild end-of-play applause (and heckling from the rest of the cast), the actors came forward and some gave very entertaining and funny readings, Rob Carroll deserving a special mention for an inexplicable Australian accent that complemented a wild delivery (to heckles of, “Good on yer, Bill”!).

An interesting, educational and- most importantly- very entertaining morning. At £10 a go, I can’t afford to come to all of these sessions, but I’m very glad I made it to this one, and hopefully it’ll shed some interesting light on Pippa del Bono’s ‘Henry V’ next year, with its locally-recruited Chorus. It was also an interesting insight into how RSC actors relate in a rehearsal/workshop setting, particularly as the actors were drawn from three different companies and thus some had never worked together.

September 14, 2006

Measure For Measure @ The Courtyard Theatre

This show marked the first appearance of the Peter Hall Company at the RSC- Peter Hall being the artistic director who founded the modern RSC back in the day. There was therefore a lot of prestige and expectation behind this production, the first major non-RSC event to be staged at the Courtyard Theatre.

It looked wonderful- sweeping lights, a massive reflective wall, secret doors opening and lavish Jacobean costumes that evoked a dark and ambivalent period for the play. The nobles wore Fawksian hats and beards that made everyone look just a little bit suspicious, echoing the play’s themes of deceit.

This was a dark reading of the play, the comedy reserved for a fantastic Michael Mears as a wonderfully camp and motormouthed Lucio, and a very funny Edward Bennett as Elbow. Moody scenarios, slow and serious delivery and a sombre ending meant that this production was no comedy, but a very serious drama.

Ultimately, it left me cold. Despite an aggressive near-assault on Isabella, Angelo never seemed quite evil enough to despise, and Isabella herself was po-faced and self-righteous, a very hard reading of the heroine. Even the Duke seemed to take a background role in his own machinations, only really coming into his own in the final scene. All of which can work well in what is essentially a play about people politics, but here there didn’t seem to be any overriding concern, or moral judgment, or even an interest in anyone’s fate.

It’s a shame, in a production that was so well-spoken and large-scale, but there was very little to hold an audience’s interest- and indeed, one girl opposite me slept through most of the second half. While perhaps staying true to the spirit of Shakespeare’s problem play by not giving any clear answers, Hall seemed to opt not to have us care about several conflicting characters, but instead to have us care about no-one. Only Lucio really enlivened the stage, and the marked shift in the audience when it came to his fate in the final scene was a telling sign as to where the audience’s interest lay.

Despite this, there were some very nice moments- the extended silence after the Duke’s proposal truly brought out the awkwardness of the moment, as did the Duke’s slow walk offstage alone at the end of the play while everyone stared after him. Moments such as this were few and far-between though. It was by no means a bad production, simply one that faded from memory almost as soon as I watched it, which is never a good sign.

The Comedy of Errors @ The Swan Theatre

The last of the youth productions, and the only appearance of ‘Errors’ at the Festival, this was an excellent end to the mini-festival of Young Person’s Shakespeare, with a funny and fast production that truly captured the spirit of what is – I personally think – the funniest of Shakespeare’s comedies.

This production was by the Welsh College of Music and Drama- and in many ways it was nice to hear an accent used for comedy effect in ‘Richard III’ as the primary voice in this production. It also gave the production a real character and sense of place- Ephesus felt like a Welsh fishing village!

Gareth Rees (Dromio of Ephesus) and Thomas Brownlee (Antipholus of Syracuse)

Where this production blew the audience away was in the fast and excellent interaction between the four leads. The two Dromios kept up a constant patter and reaction, and were always entertaining to watch even if at the sides of the stage- while the two Antipholi got progressively more flustered and aggressive as the events snowballed to their climax.

Barely any of the plot was cut, the clever editing taking it down to 75 minutes by eliding the scenes, so that action flowed freely into the next scene. This also built up the rising sense of confusion, that resulted in several groups of characters all collecting on stage pointing rifles at each other. ‘Errors’ is a play that relies heavily on speed to make it work onstage, and the fast physical action of this production kept the audience in stitches throughout.

Elsewhere, the presence of a firing squad for Egeon gave the play a suitably sombre start, and the play’s dark undertones were fully addressed. The only confusing part was the very end, when one of the Antipholi reappeared on stage in near-darkness, raising his hand in some spiritual moment? This was unexplained, and unnecessary, as it took away from a very nice ending with the two Dromios running offstage hand in hand.

The performances were perhaps not as polished as one or two of the other student groups, but this is not a play that lends itself to received pronunciation and classical speaking- this is a play that thrives on spirit and a strong ensemble, and the group carried it off with a lot of style. An excellent production, and a wonderful way to finish the YP Shakespeare season.

September 11, 2006

The Tempest @ The Swan Theatre

Firstly, it was really nice to see quite a few of the cast of the current RSC production of ‘The Tempest’ at this school’s performance by the Guildhall School of Music and Drama- it must be interesting to go and see a different take on the play you’re doing, and it’s nice to see actors attached to particular productions supporting the festival by seeing other works.

This was a well-worked and well-edited production of ‘The Tempest’, a snappy edit that didn’t cut anything major, but condensed itself well. The storm scene was a very short piece of choreography, the actors holding up a blue drape and shaking it back and forth until all bursting away from it and offstage. Likewise, the masque was turned into a short dance that ended abruptly with Prospero’s memory of the plot.

Possibly the biggest innovation was having Ariel played by two actors, one male and one female, who danced and floated about the stage, finishing each other’s sentences and working as a unified pair. It allowed for some beautiful moments of split personality- on their freedom, one Ariel stood staring at Prospero in disbelief and admiration, while the other plucked at his arm and led him offstage.

Much fun was had with the clowing scenes, Trinculo in particular cast as a sorrowful and downtrodden sub-servant to the smarter Stephano. In contrast, Sebastian was unusually aggressive and Antonio full of slightly camp evil, those scenes maintaining more menace than I’d expected. A female Gonzalo (Gonzala!) added a different dimension to the character too, now a nagging woman rather than a boring old man- but with a feminine tender care of Prospero and Alonso.

A good production, and one that would be easily comprehensible to schools. My one complaint would be that the music- played from behind the audience to accompany some scenes- drowned out the actors for those of us sitting in the rear, but that aside it was a thoughtful and entertaining version of the play.

September 10, 2006

The Rape Of Lucrece @ The Swan Theatre

It’s a bit hard to know whether to call this an event or a production- it IS one of the fifty-four Complete Works productions, but as it was an hour and fifteen minute workshopped reading, it felt more like an event, a curio, than a full production.

‘The Rape Of Lucrece’, for anyone who doesn’t know, is a narrative poem detailing the rape of Lucrece by Tarquin, the last king of Rome, and her subsequent suicide and the running out of the kings, resulting in the birth of the Roman Republic. The bulk of it is taken up with Tarquin and Lucrece’s musings on the events, and to that end it lends itself well to a dramatic reading.

Five cast members took on the text, each narrating but also taking on particular parts. The absolute highlight was Jane Lapotaire’s Lucrece, returning to the company to just do this workshop. In her mammoth soliloquy that dominates the middle third of the poem, she held the stage by herself and completely mesmerised the audience- despite reading her lines from the script, her voice and considered actions were powerfully emotive and expressed an impressive range of emotion as Lucrece meditated and railed against her violation.

Jane Lapotaire

Ariyon Bakare, taking on Tarquin, gave an equally impressive performance in one of the most horrific roles, the considered but not entirely evil rapist. His confusion and indecision was gripping, just as the description (not enacted) of the rape itself.

The three other cast members played a narrative chorus, narrating and watching the action intently. For those interested, Rob Carroll (Trebonius from ‘Caesar’) played Collatine, David Fielder (Pandulph in ‘King John’) played Brutus and Patrick Romer (Montague in ‘Romeo’ and the Friar in ‘Much Ado’) played Lucius, in addition to their narrative parts. Between the three of them they split the narration, keeping the text pacey and interesting, and fascinating to listen to.

According to the programme, Gregory Doran had tried several approaches to the play, experimenting with masks, mime and music. In the end, however, they approached for a straight reading of the play, with simple movements to bring out the power of the words and a fantastic reading of the text. It’s sometimes easy to forget, in an ensemble company with such technical power at its disposal, that an actor simply standing on stage and delivering lines powerfully can be as spellbinding as any production, and that’s something this reading proved beyond doubt.

September 08, 2006

Richard III @ The Swan Theatre

The third Youth production, and the most ambitious so far- today saw RADA take on Shakespeare’s second-longest play with a cast of eleven and a 1 hr 45 minute running time, along with projections, recorded sound effects and lighting cues.

There was one major reason why this wasn’t very good- the editing of the text was simply appalling. The brief for these productions was to create a shortened version of the text, suitable for school children and education work, and running about an hour and a half or less. Here, the editor unfortunately completely failed.

The play we were given consisted of a stripped down version of the text that tried to include pretty much every single character and event- even to the appearance of Clarence’s children. Rather than streamline the action or conflate parts, the editor chose to just cut large chunks of the text- Richard’s “Was ever woman in this humour wooed?” soliloquy was only five lines long, for example.

Worse, ALL of the women’s ‘wailing scenes’ were kept. As anyone who’s seen a film version of ‘Richard III’ knows, these are the first things to cut, as they don’t advance plot or character, simply comment rhetorically on the action. Yet the editor insisted on keeping the scenes near-intact, at the expense of cutting large chunks of the main plot and dialogue. I can only assume that this was out of a concern of giving the male and female actors equal chance to shine on the stage, but doing this results in an unbalanced and heavily weepy play, that lessens the importance of the truly interesting characters like Hastings, Buckingham and Tyrrell. In a full text, the women’s scenes are fantastic and a good relief from the politics of the main action- but when given such prominence in a stripped text, they overshadow the main action, and their repetitiveness becomes irritating.

Even more ignorant was the use of Margaret, who is present in ‘Richard III’ as the last Lancastrian survivor of the ‘Henry VI’ trilogy. In a cycle of the plays, such as the RSC are doing now, she is a chilling reminder of what has just gone before. To an Elizabethan audience, well versed in the politics and stage history of the character, she would have been a thrilling cameo and blast from the past. But in a stand-alone production designed to introduce school-age children to a complex play, there is no sense in giving such dominance to a character who spends her lengthy appearances talking about long-dead people who the audience have never heard of, with no explanations as to who they were or what happened. She is a character designed for an audience who know the plot- and for an educational piece, simply confuses issues yet further.

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So, the editing was, in my opinion, appalling, and made a mess of what was otherwise an interesting production. The highlight was Ross Armstrong’s Richard, a manic and well-spoken man who fawned, spat, gesticulated and fought like a man possessed. While conforming to all the stereotypes of the RADA actor (the RP voices and emotive stances!), he really impressed and carried the bulk of the production on his (hunched) shoulders.

This was a serious-minded production, but came to life in an excellent orations scene, with Catesby in particular trying unconvincingly to persuade us to support Richard, looking at Buckingham in desperation for back-up but failing miserably- while other sections of the audience were thrown sweets or asked to hail Richard. Buckingham made an excellent double-act with Richard, and solid performances from Edward, Clarence, Tyrrell and a gloriously brattish Prince Edward added to some excellent moments. The only slightly disappointing performance was Louise Ford’s Lady Anne, who gave a committed and emotional portrayal that tended towards the overblown. She had a peculiar way of holding her arms straight down at her sides and rocking back and forth with her entire upper torso, which unfortunately gave her the jerky look of a puppet being torn back and forth and was quite distracting.

Despite this last, it was a full and interesting production, with some very nice moments and strong lead performances. The editing let down a good cast- and I think it would be interesting to see how this is received in schools, as I personally believe that it remains too complex. To simply cut or conflate some characters or scenes – as ‘All’s Well’ and ‘Much Ado’ did with ingenuity- would have been a far more effective approach.

September 05, 2006

Much Ado About Nothing @ The Swan Theatre

Not the phenomenal and sold-out RSC ‘Much Ado’ with Tamsin Greig and Joseph Millson- this was another of the youth productions, this time by the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School.

Again only an hour and a quarter long, and omitting characters such as Antonio and Ursula, this was a very quick-paced ‘Much Ado’ that tackled the text head-on and generally came up trumps.

The funniest elements were definitely the watch scenes, using the simplest physical humour to great effect, with officers ducking from carelessly-swung pikes and an ongoing joke about the size of their weapons. Beatrice and Benedick’s verbal sparring suffered from heavy editing but was still lively and entertaining. My only personal disappointment was that the famous overhearing scenes were relatively unimaginative and static, though that said the text is so good that they tend to be funny however they’re done!

The play didn’t particularly provide new insights into the text, but it did make some interesting changes by conflating characters- Leonato and Margaret in particular came out very strongly by taking over Ursula and Antonio’s roles in addition to their own.

In a very nice touch, the play started with Don Pedro bringing on a firing squad for Don John, with drums leading right up to the moment he raised his arms and the marksmen drew their rifles and fired…. showering Don John with coloured ribbons. At the end, however, after Don John’s treachery, the exact same scene was repeated, except this time blacking out just as Don Pedro lowered his hand, leaving us to wonder if this was now the real thing.

I’m a bit worried that ‘Much Ado’ will always suffer in my mind now for being compared to the RSC’s current production, which is one of the best pieces of theatre I’ve ever seen- even the Branagh film seemed a bit sluggish after it! But this production was coming from a very different place, condensing the play for a school-age audience and presenting a clear and entertaining text, and in that sense it was very successful.

September 04, 2006

All's Well That Ends Well @ The Swan theatre

This was the first of the Young People’s Shakespeare series, of which there are five over the next fortnight- one off performances, heavily cut, each done by a different UK drama school.

It’s a harsh deal for ‘All’s Well’ to only get an hour and fifteen minutes single performance when it’s a relatively little-performed play anyway, but that said it’s not one of the best plays, and its subject matter lends itself well to a young cast.

This production was by the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, and was very minimal- a few stools providing the only set, no sound or music except for a drum and only a couple of wash changes for the lighting. This was all about the performances.

The highlight was Hank Ostendorf’s suitably bitter and manic Parolles, who gave a very funny performance culminating in him clutching an audience member’s leg while his ‘torturers’ dragged him away. The Scottish Messenger, into whom many of the minor parts were absorbed, was also very good, leading the key songs (mostly Scottish folk) and always entertaining.

The mood of the main plot was relatively solemn, Helena in particular almost never smiling. The awkwardness of Helena and Bertram’s initial engagement was particularly good, and the side-stories of the Countess’ romance with Lafew and Diana’s misguided love for Bertram even after his true nature was revealed were both quite touching.

The editing of the text was quite impressive, the only notable omission being Lavatch the clown- but yet the action was compressed into an hour and a quarter. The result was a very clear and direct interpretation of the text, definitely a very accessible performance for schools and people unfamiliar with the play.

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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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