All entries for October 2006

October 31, 2006

Possibly a little over–excited

Only eighteen and a half hours until Tiny Ninja Hamlet!


October 26, 2006

Rough Magyck @ The Cube

The first Cube production, by a company who specialise in multimedia presentation- and I hardly know where to begin.

Entering the foyer of the theatre, the audience were all given lunchboxes with a range of ‘souvenirs’ inside (including fairy liquid and a complimentary peanut). Our evening was to be conducted by Hamlet Holidays and Arden Forest Dream Tours, who were doing tours of the theatre.

The backstory centred on the current renovation of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, telling us (on a huge video screen in the foyer) how builders had broken into a network of tunnels beneath the theatre that dated back to Tudor times. Within those tunnels, something had been disturbed which was now spewing mystical energy up into the auditorium.

Introduced over the screen to two documentary presenters, the Brittonioni Brothers, who were making a film on Shakespeare’s supernatural, we were then escorted into the venue, to see workmen digging away in the auditorium and awakening a mysterious hoofed figure beneath the theatre. Then we discovered that our tour operators were actually ‘Ron’ and ‘Tania’, two fairies, and the head of RSC Marketing, ‘Paul Spero’, was a magician who had abjured his magic- any of this sounding familiar?!

Rough Magyck

Finally taken into the space, the Brittonioni Brothers, assisted by Puck, showed us the start of their film and drew us into a strange world of fact, anecdote, video presentation that merged into real life and general befuddlement. As the film-makers were gradually overwhelmed by the supernatural, so the fairies became more prominent, eventually sucking the filmmakers into their world and pulling the audience out of their seats and onto the main stage of the RSC, facing back into the Cube. A huge screen was lowered onto which was projected the god Pan, awakened from a long sleep under the theatre and excited to know what humankind had made of the arts since his rest- before leading us as his spear bearers to a grand victory over the commercial arts, resulting in us standing on the main stage while the curtains opened, bright lights shone and thunderous applause greeted us- along with the Brittonioni Brothers wearing asses heads.

Confused? Me too. It’s not the kind of play that can be described very well. ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ was the most obviously referenced play, and ‘The Tempest’ also drew several mentions, but by and large this was Forkbeard’s own insane creation.

I enjoyed it. It forced the audience into its own little world and didn’t give us a chance to stand around making intelligent comments- this was theatre that grabbed you by the scruff of the neck and made you participate. The technical cleverness of the piece, though, became somewhat wearing. I’m not a huge fan of Forkbeard’s style, and find that some of their tricks (such as an actor moving behind a screen and then appearing as video footage on the screen) are overused until they become dull. The sheer amount of stuff happening and profusion of ideas left it feeling like an A-level theatre studies piece, and I couldn’t even begin to guess at what the production was “about”. Although funny, the play also didn’t invite an emotional response, providing stimulus for the head rather than anything else.

Not all theatre has to move though, and as a piece of sensory stimulus this production was utterly overwhelming. Keeping the audience moving and interested (though the film sections ran on somewhat) was impressive, as were the amount of jokes and points of interest. Factually, there was much to be learned about Shakespeare’s writing from the documentary footage, and in terms of performance this was like no other production in the Festival.

I think I’ll always remember that feeling of being stood on the stage and having the curtain arise to blinding light and thundering applause. If nothing else, this production really made you feel a part of something, even if only because the audience was so small that we felt we were being privileged to gain access to these areas. I would have liked something more coherent and unified, particularly as the first couple of sections threw up such interesting ideas about what lay beneath the theatre, which were mostly forgotten in the documentary presentation, but taken in its own right, this production was a valiant hour and a half of cutting edge theatre that completely enraptured the audience- and will doubtless not be forgotten!


The Cube

A quick post before my next review- The Cube is now open!

The Cube is a pretty impressive sight to anyone familiar with the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. The space itself is built right up to the proscenium arch, and juts out right over the main body of the stalls. Surrounded by four walls- with the fourth wall up against the safety curtain- it provides a largish stage area and a steep rake of tiered seating, with everyone sitting on RSC cushions.

The Cube is reached via gangways from the main auditorium, and there’s a real sense of entering this huge, traditional venue and then being sucked into something more intimate. Certainly the seats in there are close together and the whole space is so closed in that you can’t help but feel sucked in to the productions.

I picked up my Cube Programme today, and have to admit, am pretty excited about some of the stuff that’s coming to it. First review- ‘Rough Magyck’!


October 25, 2006

Timon Of Athens @ The Shakespeare Centre

Coming up the stairs of the Shakespeare Centre, we were all given a badge and asked to fill in our name, job title and salary bracket. Then, escorted into a room decorated for a corporate training event, we were fed gold chocolate bars, made comfortable and treated to a series of motivational speeches and powerpoint presentations on the usefulness of Shakespeare’s plays as life management lectures. This, then, was Cardboard Citizens’ take on ‘Timon of Athens’.

Cardboard Citizens are a group who work with homeless artists on theatre that’s very socially aware- director Adrian Jackson works closely with Augusto Boal and shares ideologies with the Theatre of the Oppressed- and their take on ‘Timon’ was fresh and quite exciting. Taking the idea that it is an unfinished play, the script featured numerous insertions of “business speak”, autobiography, videos of real people and observations on the action. Timon’s story became that of a man dispossessed by a thankless society and fickle friends, and his world was literally torn apart for the second act as he set himself up as a homeless man on the shore.

Timon Of Athens promotional poster

This was an adaptation of the play rather than a straight reading, taking many liberties with the text. At its heart, though, Shakespeare was the controlling factor, with the “company slogan” reading “Where there’s WILL, there’s a WAY”. The key line was, “Who can speak broader than he that has no house to put his head in? Such may rant against great buildings?”, and taking the text from this angle saw the play claimed with confidence by the company, brought to poignant effect as scenes of Timon’s decline and stubborn reluctance to help himself were cut with video of an old squatter standing firm again his local council and ultimately being evicted.

Three different actors played Timon at different stages of his decline, all stripping down to underwear as his life went to pot, standing in sharp decline to the corporate suits, plush carpets and plates of Ferrer Rochet that added colour to his happier days. An eclectic mix of accents and nationalities among the cast gave the text a unique voice, and the juxtaposition of modern and Shakespearean dialogue meant that the play as a whole became Cardboard Citizens’.

An interactive approach that saw the audience shuffled between different rooms in the Centre, given lines and drawn into heckling, kept everyone involved in what was going on. This was immediate theatre, performed on a small stage where the front rows had to pull in their knees to let the performers past. It also made the violence of some moments- the pelting of the friends with faeces and urine, and the destroying of the furniture- very immediate.

The quality of acting varied, but this wasn’t a play about acting- it was about storytelling. Even the weaker actors brought a grit and passion to their roles that brought home the truth the company had found in this story of the dispossessed. The final moments, as the company stood united while a video showed a man walking into the ocean until his head disappeared under the waves, were incredibly moving- and ‘Timon’ isn’t a play that often moves.

Far more so than Nos do Morro’s ‘Two Gentlemen Of Verona’, this felt like a community theatre piece that had truly fitted itself to its venue and to its purpose. It was fully committed and, without wanting to sound too cheesy, incredibly enlightening- some early observations on our ability to decide for ourselves whether to let our disappointments consume us or to simply get on with life particularly resounded for me. It is evenings like this that remind me of why I love theatre so much- because regardless of pedigree or money, a good show can touch people with a truth that you simply can’t get in the real world. Shows with a ‘message’ can often be excruciating, but ‘Timon’ managed to be funny, entertaining, moving and thought-provoking. I’ll be VERY interested to see the reviews!


October 15, 2006

Antony and Cleopatra @ The Swan Theatre

Last night’s play was the wonderful, universally lauded ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ starring Patrick Stewart and Harriet Walter, which I reviewed way back when I first started this blog. Then, though, I was standing in the top gallery of the Swan. Tonight, I was on the front row, at times mere inches from the actors. And it was wonderful.

Being up so close allowed me to see so much more of the performances, whereas the top view last time meant I caught far fewer of the subtleties, and instead focussed on production design.

One of the highlights was John Hopkin’s Octavius- a wonderfully nervy interpretation of the young ruler as a man coming to terms with his new power, incredibly intimidated by the older general and treading a thin line between goodness and command. His collapse onto the stage on the news of Antony’s death and his subsequent shaky demands that Cleopatra be treated with all care summed up this performance excellently.

Harriet Walter and Patrick Stewart were as good as I remembered, and a talk this morning with Harriet Walter brought out some interesting titbits, such as the fact that the two actors barely know each other. On stage, though, their chemistry was perfect and even the slower scenes were brought to life.

This was what set the play apart from the two other productions the same company have done- the pace of the whole play was terrific, keeping the audience rapt at all times. From the light comedy of Cleopatra’s scenes with the Messenger to the high formality of the suicide scene, to the shock of Eros’ throat-slashing, the fantastic drinking scene set on suspended tables and the gloriously subtle yet powerful politics of the triumvirate, every moment was superbly handled and hugely entertaining.

The production is now off to America, and then to London- where it’ll be interesting to see how it changes for a proscenium arch theatre, with nothing of the intimacy of last night. I’m really grateful for the chance to see this production a second time, especially in such an amazing seat- and the opportunities to talk to Harriet Walter this morning and then do workshops with Assistant Director Steve Marmion in the afternoon were really helpful in giving a further insight to the production as well.


October 12, 2006

'Julius Caesar' and 'The Tempest' @ The Royal Shakespeare Theatre

Two entries for the price of one today, as I’ve been back to see two plays that for various reasons I didn’t fully digest first time I saw them. Many thanks to our sponsors at the CAPITAL centre for transport and cheap tickets!

‘Julius Caesar’ first. The interesting thing about seeing this production again was that last time they were experimenting with doing the whole play as a single act, without interval. Here, they had split in into two acts, cut at the traditional point between Antony’s vows of revenge and the pivotal orations scene.

I enjoyed the play more this time round, though still found myself zoning out during some of the long speeches. From up in the circle, the murder itself seemed clunkier and more staged. However, Ariyon Bakare, released from his crutches, was powerful in the orations scene, and the whole pace of the second half felt much improved. I still ultimately feel that John Light’s Brutus is the weak link of this production, and any play whose central character seems so weak will always suffer, but nonetheless I did enjoy the play a second time.

Thanks to two accidents and a roadworks, we arrived 40 minutes late to ‘The Tempest’- which meant we were spared my two least favourite moments of the production: the static storm scene and the looooong exposition scene between Prospero and Miranda.

I actually enjoyed the production more this time round, picking up on subtleties and character moments that I’d missed first time. However, the play still suffered from the same fundamental flaws- the 80s scene changes with what can only be described as ‘wibbly’ visual effects on the curtain and a static approach to much of the storytelling.

Much of it is highly innovative though- the masque scene reimagined as a tribal wedding ritual is particularly exciting, and the interruption of Ariel followed by a riotous flooding of the stage with all the other characters, culminating in a frozen moment of Caliban leading Miranda by the neck, was very powerful. The OTT acting of Stephano irritated and charmed in equal measures, and I appreciated the erudite yet doglike Caliban more this time, along with the trick of linking Caliban and Ferdinand through their similarly staged entrances as slaves.

The play still belonged to Julian Bleach’s Ariel and Patrick Stewart’s Prospero, who dominated the stage throughout. Bleach’s vocal work, ranging from his cracked singing voice to his screeching harpy curses, was tremendous, and the skill in holding his body so still throughout is impressive, while Patrick Stewart’s Arctic robustness in his furs contrasted with the vulnerability he allowed himself to show in his final monologue, as he pleaded for the audience’s applause.

It was a good production, and I enjoyed it more once in the mood for it, but I still maintain that it’s not the RSC’s best for the year- and without the draw of a big name in the lead role, I think it would have done far less well at the box office. Very glad to have the chance to see it again, though I’m even more excited about tomorrow, when I’ll be in the front row at the Swan for my second viewing of ‘Antony and Cleopatra’!


October 10, 2006

Regime Change @ The Swan Theatre

The first excitement of today was getting the free programme and seeing the cast list. Not only were several of the best actors of the ‘Julius Caesar’/’Tempest’ company (including Julian Bleach, Mariah Gale, John Hopkins, Joseph Alessi, David Rubin and Golda Rosheuvel) involved, but for this event only the fantastic actor Henry Goodman had come back to the company as the lead character.

‘Regime Change’ is a response by writer Peter Straughan to ‘Julius Caesar’, specifically to Brutus’ night of anguish before the murder of Caesar. Straughan’s play takes place in modern Istanbul, a time of subtle political change and backstage intrigue. Two Russian-Americans, Lutz and Coiler, are based in the country in preparation for a covert change in the local political systems, which as the years pass becomes increasingly unlikely. Meanwhile, Lutz builds a relationship with Jean, a young pregnant wife which grows (in his mind) into something more, while the repressed Coiler builds a relationship with a fortune teller and her intimidating brother and eventually breaks free from his own constrictions, killing Jean’s husband and coming into his political prime.

This was a rehearsed reading for Radio 3, which is going to be recorded for broadcast in January. Actors were in their own clothes and reading from scripts, but basic blocking meant that they were still performing physically as they read. The performances were excellent, with Henry Goodman in particular bringing a moving vulnerability to the aging Lutz as his memory slowly succumbed to dementia, and Joseph Alessi giving a twitchy and intense performance as Coiler that graduated to a cold confidence contrasting horribly with his partner.

I suppose I’m just not entirely sure what the play was about, as such. The intention of it as a response certainly didn’t seem to be to shed new light on ‘Caesar’, as much as to borrow a loose idea from it, that of the insurrection that occurs in the man “Between the acting of a dreadful thing/ And the first motion”. An hour and a half long, the play split itself between its two parallel plots, and Coiler’s in particular became confusing as various stimuli- a platonic relationship with a prostitute, accusations of homosexuality and a come-on from a retarded male- combined to bring out in him extreme acts of sex and violence.

This was an entertaining afternoon, with a lot of laughs and some quite moving moments, particularly in the final scene as Lutz lay down and kicked his legs in the air, learning to float in the water of a swimming pool and laughing over and over, just after Coiler and an American operative negotiated his murder. This wasn’t a version of ‘Julius Caesar’, and as a response was only very loosely based on anything Shakespearean, but was certainly an interesting and unusual addition to the Festival.


October 03, 2006

Responses

The next ‘new’ thing in the Complete Works festival is the start of the Responses. These are new plays, reflecting Shakespeare’s plays in new settings and texts to reflect new concerns.

I’m quite excited about these. While the traditional productions are great, I’m always excited to see how Shakespeare is translated into new forms. One of my favourite films of all time (though I’m a little embarrassed to admit it) is ‘10 Things I Hate About You’, which is not only the best US teen flick of recent years but also an intelligent and clever response to the ideas raised in ‘The Taming Of The Shrew’.

Where a response starts and a reinterpretation ends is a very grey area. Many may consider Kneehigh’s ‘Cymbeline’ a response to the play, featuring as it does a brand new script, a radical approach to storytelling and a loose take on the plot. Others may think that responses start in films like ‘10 Things’ or ‘My Own Private Idaho’, that completely translate the plays to new times and places.

The responses start this week with ‘Regime Change’, a take on ‘Julius Caesar’ set in Istanbul. Other responses include ‘One Of These Days’ – ‘The Tempest’ transposed to Ireland in 1775, ‘The Indian Boy’, a new and exciting-sounding take on ‘Dream’, ‘The Baghdad Richard’, which identifies the rise of the crookback with that of Saddam Hussein, and ‘Days Of Significance’ which takes ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ to Iraq.

I’m really looking forward to all of these, and very much hope that the reaction to them isn’t going to be “This isn’t Shakespeare”. It’d be wonderful to think that people will enjoy these new takes on Shakespeare on their own merits.

Of course, that’s assuming they’re good!


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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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