All entries for September 2007

September 05, 2007

Twelfth Night @ The Courtyard Theatre

I’m of the opinion that Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare’s greatest pieces of work. It’s funny, deep, very clever and features some of the greatest characters in the canon. Its immediate appeal is apparent from the number of productions of the play put on every year. The last twelve months alone have seen Filter, Cheek By Jowl, Propeller, Chichester Festival and the RSC all present the play in the UK, as well as any number of student and amateur productions. It’s also the play I’ve seen the most, in no less than five versions. Clearly, there’s something about it.

So why then is it so difficult for companies to put on good productions of it? Of the five productions I’ve seen one was unforgivably dire and one (the RSC’s last offering in 2005) had interesting moments but was horribly flat with some atrocious performances. Filter’s had promise, but the work-in-progress presentation was far from finished. By contrast, Cheek By Jowl’s version was one of the greatest pieces of theatre I have ever seen, but surely the play must be able to work in English as well as in Russian? I had high hopes for last night’s new RSC production, but again the play fell victim to the curse I seem to put on Twelfth Night whenever I buy a ticket.

It started well. Onto a stage dominated by a grand piano, costume racks and mirrors staggered James Clyde’s Feste, in tatty tuxedo and dishevelled in a manner Russell Brand would be proud of. Employed for his wonderful piano skills as well as his fantastically rakish look, he set straight to work on a stirring and deeply sad piano tune, to which Orsino came on in dressing gown, holding the audience rapt for a good five minutes as the music stirred at something within him. This was a powerful and wordless moment that introduced the two best performers in the piece to great effect: Jason Merrells’ Orsino brought the tortured conflict of the character to the forefront, while Clyde as Feste stole the show at every turn, only flagging towards the end when his irreverent sarcasm started to become annoying. For most of the play, though, his witty line in mimicry and random silliness was entertaining and I found myself sitting through other scenes waiting impatiently for his next appearance.

The Big Concept for this production was cross-gender casting, with a male Viola and female Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Fabian. Chris New did a reasonable job with Viola, but unfortunately those of us who saw Andrey Kuzichev in the same role only six months ago in Stratford know the wonder of watching a man who can convince us he is a woman. New was steady, and very funny in places, but felt incidental in a production which looked elsewhere for its focal points. New provided one particularly special moment in his second interview with Olivia, however, when he knelt as if to propose, taking her by the hand and looking her in the eye. She focused nervously on him as he gently told her that he only had one heart that no woman would ever be mistress of, and the slow heartbreak of the moment on her part was painful to watch.

Regular readers may recall that I hate, with something of a passion, staggered curtain calls. I don’t mind particularly important performances being acknowledged individually (Anne-Marie Duff in St. Joan, for example) but I really don’t like curtain calls where the actors troop on in order of importance. Last night, all the incidental figures, servants etc., came on first, and were then followed by Viola, Sebastian, Orsino, Olivia and Antonio. They were followed by Toby, Andrew, Maria and Fabian, and finally Feste and Malvolio took the lead bow. In what world does FABIAN get a higher priority curtain call than VIOLA?! I ask you.

Not that I minded Fabian. In fact, of all the low comedians (bar Feste), Fabian was the only one I considered worth watching. Joanne Howarth gave a very solid performance with buoyancy and an enthusiasm that made Fabian (normally the first character to be cut from the play) a far funnier and more important stage presence than usual. It was revelatory, in the sense that it was the first time I had really noticed Fabian onstage and realised how much Shakespeare gives him to do and say.

Fabian stood out next to the other comedians, who were just poor. Siobhan Redmond’s Maria was the most unbearable, walking with a waddle and talking with a slightly exaggerated Scottish accent that turned the character into a caricature. She had no discernable personality beyond the words she was saying at the time and bored me. Forgivable in a production where Maria is playing the straight-person to the comedy pairing of Toby and Andrew, but no such luck here. Marjorie Yates was passable as a caricature of an English landowner, but her Toby was unfunny, relying on the most basic of falling over routines in order to get laughs.

Annabel Leventon’s Sir Andrew was the worst though. Looking like nothing so much as a Thunderbird puppet with a stiff walk, set smile with teeth open so far that they could have had a cigar permanently set in them and an accent so faux-upper-class that it frequently became unintelligible, she was almost offensive in her ludicrous caricaturing. Occasionally, VERY occasionally, this worked to cause a laugh, and her falling-over sequences were actually amusing, but the posturing became irritating within seconds and her forced fixed expressions prevented any variation in the character. Sir Andrew is usually made ridiculous, but take the ridiculousness too far and you can feel like you’re watching a cartoon.

This was an actor-based performance, relying little on design elements, and unfortunately it was the performances that let it down. Justine Mitchell played a surprisingly funny Olivia, and John Lithgow was good value as a particularly strait-laced Malvolio, but overall this production felt redundant. The entrances and exits were cribbed from Cheek By Jowl’s style, the final scene of characters leaving from Trevor Nunn’s film version, the yellow stockings scene was as unimaginative as is possible and, perhaps most frustratingly, the concept of the comedians as female was entirely unused, as all three women were made up as men and their female selves were ignored, strange in a production which was so proud of its cross-gender casting that it spent the entire programme talking about the wonders of men and women cross-casting. A wasted opportunity.

Oh, and whoever brought the school group who decided to go “Ewwwwww” whenever two male actors kissed should, in my humble opinion, be shot.

September 03, 2007

The End Result

Today I submitted my MA dissertation. This is of particular interest to this blog as, as my longest serving readers will know, this blog only came about because of my dissertation. Let me take you back, if you will, to March 2006.

As the RSC’s Complete Works Festival rolled up and I started choosing which productions I wanted to see, I became painfully aware that I really wanted to see them all. I wanted to see the big names, I wanted to see the less-performed plays, I wanted to see the visiting companies. And, as the Festival was going to span the two academic years in which I was doing my MA, I thought that this would be an excellent opportunity to do something new in Shakespeare Studies (itself a rare enough thing!) by attending the entire event. Not long after, I was asked to keep a blog of my theatregoing by Susan Brock, the administrator of the CAPITAL Centre, and the Bardathon was born.

So now, almost 18 months later, the finished product is here. 21,000 words over 80 pages of dissertation, with another 84 pages of appendices. I’ve called it Shakespeare’s New Stages: The Impact of the RSC’s Complete Works Festival on Audience and Critical Understanding of Shakespearean Performance. Catchy, I know, but it sums it up.

What I’ve done is highlight the crisis in Shakespearean Performance that several commentators have written about: that Shakespeare cannot survive as a heritage institution, but instead must grow and develop with its audiences and with the rest of the theatrical world. While fringe Shakespeares exist, there is a feeling that the institution – in this instance, the RSC – are holding back the development of Shakespeare on stage by pandering too much to audience expectations of a heritage, ‘traditional’ (I hate the word, but without getting too detailed it’s probably the easiest to use!) Shakespeare.

The Complete Works Festival gave the RSC an opportunity to answer this crisis, by bringing loads of fringe theatre forms and companies into the mainstream, and the dissertation basically looked at how the RSC and its guests reinterpreted Shakespeare over the year in three areas – Space, Language and Performance. I looked specifically at what was new for the Stratford-upon-Avon audience, and how audience involvement and expectations were inverted and subverted in various productions.

While doing this, I also looked at the further reaching impact of the Festival, with the dissertation boiling down to the question of: Is the Complete Works Festival going to have a lasting impact on Stratford, on the RSC, on the performance world? My answer ultimately is that it has the potential to. However, my feeling is that it won’t. The legacies of the Festival that Michael Boyd has acknowledged – ensemble theatre making, international collaborations, new work – have all been a part of the RSC’s work before now, and I think that, while his claim that it was a “landmark year” is true, I think the claim that it was an “engine of change” is not. I hope I’m wrong, and I didn’t express my worries quite as explicitly in the dissertation, but I’m not convinced the RSC is going to be undergoing any radical transformations, apart from in physical space, for quite some time. The new season is entirely Shakespeare and entirely big-hitters: Hamlet, The Merchant of Venice , A Midsummer Night’s Dream , The Taming of the Shrew and Love’s Labour’s Lost . Even with David Tennant and Patrick Stewart, it’s still a bit uninspired, and I hope that the temporary quietness of the company doesn’t mean that all the experimentation of the year doesn’t go to waste.

If anyone’s interested in hearing more about it, just let me know! Though obviously you may not- it is, after all, just an MA dissertation. The plays I discussed in detail as part of it were:

The RSC’s Pericles and The Winter’s Tale
Forkbeard Fantasy’s Rough Magyck
Tiny Ninja Theater’s Hamlet
Kneehigh’s Cymbeline
Munchner Kammerspiele’s Othello

However, I managed to get about 45 of the 54 productions into the dissertation, which I’m quite proud about!

Anyway, I’m now onto the next phase of my life. I now work full time with the CAPITAL Centre, which is keeping me very much in the loop on Shakespearean performance, and I’ve recently been approached to help with two academic projects. Firstly, I’ll be assisting the new performance editor for Shakespeare Survey by finding out what performances are on, going to see some of them and reviewing the ones I see, and secondly I will be working on Internet Shakespeare Editions helping to build up an international online reviewing network.

Beyond that, I’m looking forward to a rest from academia. A PhD may turn up down the line, but for now I’m just looking forward to my bed…..

The British Shakespeare Association Conference

The what? Well, for the last six months I’ve been kept very busy co-organising the British Shakespeare Association’s 3rd conference, which was held at Warwick Uni this weekend. I’m somewhat knackered, but wanted to write a little bit about some of the stuff that came out of the conference, as it’s not entirely irrelevant to what happens on this blog!

Firstly, and most obviously, there was a panel discussion on ‘Blogging the Bard’, perhaps the first ever academic debate on blogging Shakespeare! The panel was convened by Andy Dickson of the Guardian and included myself, Natasha Tripney who writes the Interval Drinks blog and Pat Tatspaugh, who not only helped us with lots of the preparation for the conference and wrote a very helpful performance guide to The Winter’s Tale, but also took time out of her weekend to help me proofread my dissertation. What a legend!

We had a very interesting discussion, much of it concerned with the nature of theatre reviewing and the benefits and problems with blogging, some of which I covered in my last post. Andy and I recorded a podcast just afterwards which I’ll post up here when it comes up, as it should give a decent idea of what we spoke about. There were enough people to have a lively session and I got to speak to several people afterwards about what I’ve been writing, which was great as these conferences are all about meeting people when it comes down to it. It was nice to meet people who’ve been reading the blog as well- hi folks!

The highlight of the conference was undoubtedly Jonathan Bate and Stanley Wells going head-to-head in a debate about editing Shakespeare. Everyone was joking that it was going to be ‘The Big Fight’, but it was something of a surprise when it actually was, with various wags in the audience making catcalls! Best moment- Stanley Wells actually using the word “Cowardly” when describing Jonathan’s Folio-based approach. Miaow. I’m staying well out of it, but would like to note for the record that I do own both editions…..

Other than that it was lovely to meet so many people over the weekend, and being an organiser had its privileges, not least getting to chat to Simon Russell Beale and Oliver Ford Davies. Stanley Wells and Paul Edmondson were also wonderful dinner company (I’m not biased by Stanley buying our whole table wine, of course) and we also had the UK premiere of a new colour print of Asta Nielson’s wonderful film of Hamlet. I have to admit that by that time of night I was flagging, but lots of people turned up which was great!

I’m quite glad I won’t be organising any more big conferences for a while, as the workload has taken it out of me somewhat, but I had a great weekend regardless of various hiccups here and there. I have a day off tomorrow, having handed in my MA dissertation today (see next post!), and shall be seeing the RSC’s new Twelfth Night in the evening. Looking forward to it!

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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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