All entries for November 2008

November 20, 2008

New Globe season

By sheer chance, I popped onto the Shakespeare's Globesite this afternoon and found that this press release went up yesterday announcing the new season. The more I know about the Globe, the more I look forward to the work. Anyway, here's the basics if clicking a link is too hard.

Season title: Young Hearts

  • Excellent, a concept! I found the Totus Mundi header for the 2008 season a bit of a copout, being all-embracing, but this is an interesting idea which allows them to put on a commercially viable season with a clear focus.

Plays: Romeo and Juliet

  • Well, inevitable really. I'm almost at a stage now where I'm giving up complaining about the number of Romeos, though in the Globe's case it's a particular shame as they've been touring a Romeo for the last two summers - you might have thought they'd have a year off! Dominic Dromgoole directing.

As You Like It

  • 2009 is shaping up to be As You Like It's year, with the RSC putting on a major new production and Tim Supple's Dash Arts premiering theirs at the Curve in Leicester. Still, it's a play I haven't seen that often and it'll hopefully be interesting to compare the three. No notes on director yet.

Troilus and Cressida

  • A slow but sure continuing interest in this play, particularly after Cheek by Jowl's production last year. Have to say, really looking forward to seeing this one on the Globe stage. Again, no information about who's directing.

  • Love's Labour's Lost

This is the disappointment, a revival of Dromgoole's production of 2007. As much as I enjoyed that production, I'm not sure its revival is completely necessary. I agree that it fits the theme, but there are other plays with an interest in young lovers (Two Gentlemen springs to mind - or, God help us, what about a non-Shakespearean dramatist?!), and we have just had two major LLLs elsewhere. Still, it's a solid production and hopefully a revival will at least be no worse than the original.

On tour: A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Comedy of Errors

  • Both ideal plays for touring outside, looking forward to both, hope they come somewhere near me! So far (gasp!) this is the first Dream I'm aware of for next year, though doubtless another twelve will shortly be announced. I'm a big fan of the Globe touring productions though, so fingers crossed for both of them.

EDIT: Forgot to mention that there are, naturally, three new plays in the rep at the main house as well. They may well be interesting, particularly the new version of Euripides' Helen. Will wait for more info!

November 08, 2008

Twelfth Night @ The Courtyard Theatre

Writing about web page

As part of the original Complete Works 'Bardathon', I was one of the few people lucky enough to catch the earliest days of Filter Theatre's production of Twelfth Night, when it was still just a work-in-progress being tested out in the tiny Cube space. The finished version has been touring for a while now, and after two years it finally returned to Stratford for a one-night-only showing in the Courtyard.

Despite only being half full, there was a party feel in the auditorium. The play didn't begin until 11pm, and I don't think mine was the only group to have been to the pub beforehand. Combined with a noisy school group in the gallery and the younger half of the RSC Hamlet cast on a group night out, it was a convivial atmosphere that Filter played up to. The house lights were left up for the production and the company concentrated on maintaining the feeling of a shared experience, interacting freely with the audience and encouraging noisy response throughout.

Now extended to an hour and a half, this was still a heavily cut version of Twelfth Night. Fabian and Antonio were entirely excluded, and Sebastian wasn't seen until he bumped into Feste and Sir Andrew in time to be mistaken for the 'cowardly' Cesario. Other scenes were cleverly conflated to speed up the action; for example, Ferdy Roberts' Malvolio went directly from reading 'Olivia's' letter to stripping down to yellow underpants and posing before Olivia.

As with all Filter's productions, the process was a part of the performance itself. The stage manager sat on stage, all tech was controlled by performers, almost all music and sound effects were created live. This latter was particularly important in a production that effectively turned Twelfth Night into a sound-piece, moving quickly from song to song and turning every set piece into another musical number. Music was used creatively to pitch mood and ideas, as much a part of the narrative as Shakespeare's words. Thus, the play began with a free-form jazz jam semi-conducted by Orsino, out of which he suddenly plucked a single keyboard melody as his strain with a "dying fall"; and Malvolio's fantasy of being 'Count Malvolio' was conducted to a percussive, bass-led, muddy grunge tune, during which he played air-bass and drums as he got caught up in his own delusions.

The good humour of the company brought the audience onside immediately, as they waved at the kids in the gallery and wandered round the stage in their own clothes. The quirky openness of the performance style brought huge laughter at the silliest jokes, with knowing nods to the audience as, for example, Poppy Miller's Viola stuff a pair of socks into her trousers as part of her transformation into Cesario. Costumes were ad hoc and largely transparent, but what there was was used creatively: Viola borrowed a jacket and cap from audience members to become Cesario, Malvolio stripped off to reveal yellow socks and all-too-revealing bright yellow underpants, and Feste (a rather sad, downtrodden clown) wore a simple red nose, which she placed respectively on Olivia's and Malvolio's noses to show them as fools.

The one exception to costume was Oliver Dimsdale's tremendous Sir Toby, who spent much of the play wandering around the auditorium in Elizabethan ruff and jerkin, declaiming lines from Hamlet to a skull he'd picked up. This Sir Toby was truly hysterical, whether entering with the skull in place of his own head to scare Sir Andrew or belching into microphones. It was Sir Toby who kicked off the play's central set piece, a superb late night drinking scene which merits full description.

In a moment of on-stage silence, a burbled drinking song was heard being quietly sung in the wings. Eventually, Toby sneaked in, perfectly capturing the self-conscious drunk trying to be quiet, shushing the floorboards as they creaked under his feet, but still singing his refrain in a whisper ("What is love? Tis not hereafter"). He was soon joined by Sir Andrew, wearing a velcro cap with sticky balls attached to it, and the two began to sing together, still shushing each other every time their voices rose, but sending each other into hysterics. Joined by Maria, the three sang together and started throwing the balls at Andrew's head, shushing the audience's applause as they successfully connected. As the band joined in and the volume rose, the party really began. Andrew showed off some backflips, the balls were passed around the audience for them to start throwing and the rest of the cast donned party hats and joined in the singing. Andrew disappeared offstage and re-emerged with a huge stack of pizza boxes which were distributed quickly around the audience, and before long the audience were clapping and singing along, performing Mexican waves around the theatre, and the Hamlet cast were up on stage dancing with Filter. Description somewhat neuters the effect, but essentially a real party had broken out in the Courtyard which the audience got fully involved in over what must have been a good fifteen minutes. Inevitably, Malvolio marched in and turned off the power, instantly killing the party and prompting loud and heartfelt boos from the entire theatre. It was both good fun and dramatically stunning, the time taken to build up completely worth it, creating one of the most effective scenes I've ever witnessed in Stratford.

The production had its more serious elements. Gemma Saunders' Feste was particularly interesting; a cockney geezer of a clown, her songs had a slightly desperate sense of mania about them as she whipped up her audience, but then drew out moments of sadness such as her a capella "Come away, come away death" before Orsino. Doubling as Maria, she was also the subject of a brutal throat-grasping from Malvolio at the end of the party, and didn't receive her happy ending with Toby. Slightly disappointingly, the doubling of Viola and Sebastian felt less well realised in this performance than in the work-in-progress, though the impact of the same actor kissing Olivia, then kissing Orsino while still holding Olivia's hand, was still strong.

This production was focussed on the spirit of Twelfth Night, the music and festivity that pervade the play, meaning it went for celebration over interpretation. At the end of the evening, during the encore of their final song, Saunders introduced the cast by name with a "Thank you Stratford!" that stressed the fact this was as much gig/party as play. That sense of joy, along with the excellent music, made this an evening to remember, a production that took a genuinely innovative approach to the play that revitalised it and made it fun. While there were flaws (some of the songs dragged a bit, and the dialogue sections between the set-pieces were far less interesting - Shakespeare intruded far too much!), this was a brave and inspired production. Roll on Filter's next show.

November 06, 2008

King Lear @ The Everyman Theatre

Writing about web page

Rupert Goold’s new production of King Lear is a particularly major event for the Liverpool Everyman Theatre, the small repertory theatre with a longstanding reputation for excellence. One of the central events of Liverpool’s year as European Capital of Culture, the production brings together one of the nation’s most prominent young directors and a star name in the shape of Pete Postlethwaite, returning to the theatre where he first made his name. The run in Liverpool precedes a transfer to London’s Young Vic, and will no doubt bring a great deal of well-deserved attention to the Everyman. It’s a great shame, then, to find the production such a disappointment.

At the centre of the production’s problems was a fundamental lack of coherence. Goold chose a contemporary setting for the play, with the apparent intent of reflecting ideas of modern Englishness back at the audience; but the concept was messily realised in a production that consistently chose style over substance. The modern updates felt arbitrary and superficial, a key example being Lear’s knights. The idea of making them into football hooligans with painted faces was clearly inspired by the reports of their rowdiness; but why would an old man be touring the country with a retinue of football louts? Why did their apparent uncontrollable anarchy then give way to standing quietly and politely taking orders? Why did they get rifles? This problem recurred throughout the play as modernisations were chosen for their initial visual impact but then ignored rather than integrated into the play’s aesthetic.

The play was packed full of ideas which were poorly realised. An anonymous ‘Boy’ followed Lear prominently before defecting to Cornwall’s army, all with little apparent reason, his blank face giving nothing away. Kent was made an Anglican vicar to no discernible purpose (and actually jarring with his later actions). The Fool (Forbes Masson on top form) gave a high-powered and deeply scathing performance in the first half of the play, commenting effectively on Lear’s stupidity, and fell into a sombre sobriety as he watched his master lose his mind. However, the Fool was kept alive and on stage beyond his disappearance from the text, taking over the Doctor’s lines. His shift to complete sanity was fluid, but rather undermined the effectiveness of his earlier scenes, the character becoming extremely dull. It appeared eventually that he had been kept alive simply to give Edmund the opportunity to callously shoot him in the head while telling a knock-knock joke, but this cheap piece of violence came at the expense of the Fool’s dramatic relationship with the King.

A far more effective idea was making Goneril pregnant. Here, at last, was a decision that gave a character a clear arc and motivation, her stance against her father stemming at least in part from a maternal instinct to protect her brood from the rowdy football fans. Lear’s curse of sterility and barrenness was rendered horrific, he pointing at her swollen belly and effectively calling for the unborn child’s immediate death. After giving birth in the storm, the baby itself became a focus; Albany (a pathetic drip of a man) was left holding the child while Goneril dallied with Edmund, and Edmund himself addressed the baby, holding up cuddly toys to its pram while he equivocated between the two sisters. The off-stage screaming of the baby at the play’s end as the lights went down was a fitting end, and it was only to be wished that the production had more firmly committed to this aspect of its concept, rather than muddying it with the other confused business.

Postlethwaite himself gave a solid performance as Lear, particularly drawing out the character’s humour. The first scene became a birthday buffet for the king, who entered in casual suit and played host, speaking into a microphone and setting up the declarations of love as a form of karaoke. Reappearing in his next scene in a cardigan, he was every inch the retired father rather than the king. This was also a failing, however; the setting divested Lear of any sense of regal authority even in his earlier scenes, he always being more of a dad-figure than a monarch, and thus the production became unbalanced. I’ve never seen a production of Lear in which the central character was so pushed to the margins, partly due to the histrionic performances in the subplots which further cast Postlethwaite’s scenes into shadow. The comedy of the character was pushed further by having him appear in a flowery dress when meeting Gloucester, removing the sense of pathetic dignity that the scene usually inspires and turning him more into a straightforward comedian, that again distracted from the tragedy of the character’s decline. 

The other older characters were better served. John Shrapnel was an unusually feisty Gloucester. Wearing a tracksuit, we saw him ‘training’ Edgar and Edmund, timing them with a stopwatch as they performed press-ups and jogged. His inclination to activity was further demonstrated by Edmund having to physically restrain him from going to immediately attack Edgar after reading the letter given to him by Edmund. Once blinded, with his ability to act on his active impulses, his suicidal tendencies were a natural progression, and his frustration at still being alive after his ‘fall’ was heartfelt. Interestingly, though, even when blind he was still capable of action; he intervened in the brawl between Oswald and Edgar, leaping on Oswald and stabbing him in the stomach, allowing Edgar to finish him off. Nigel Cooke’s Kent was similarly active. While the fact of his being a priest was conveniently ignored after the first scene (one wonders why they used that idea in the first place), in disguise he became a feisty, flat-capped Northerner with an aggressive demeanour. When challenging Oswald at Gloucester’s house, Oswald initially laughed in his face, mocking the old man’s readiness to fight, but after being shoved in the chest he became more genuinely scared of the old man.

The younger characters, however, were less strong, relying more on hysterics for impact. Charlotte Randle’s Regan was decent in her earlier scenes, with confident poise and a casual disregard for her father, but during the blinding of Gloucester the hysterics began, taking sexual delight in the torture and – in a particularly gruesome moment – tearing Gloucester’s second eye out with her teeth, to Cornwall’s stunned horror. Caroline Faber’s Goneril was more restrained, but as the play drew to its close both sisters began to rely on histrionics, getting louder and louder as their battle over Edmund reached its pitch. Edmund, a heavily accented Irishman played by Jonjo O’Neill, was played at top speed throughout the play, which worked well in soliloquy but rather rushed over all his machinations and scheming. By the final scene this performance was also over-acted, he lying in a pool of blood and screaming his various revelations hysterically at the rest of the cast. 

Perhaps the most disappointing performance, though, was Tobias Menzies’ Edgar. He was entirely passive and blank in his first few appearances, allowing himself to be completely moulded and manipulated by Edmund. His performance as Poor Tom was borderline offensive, relying on traditional playground representations of mental disability (tongue tucked in lower lip, smacking back of wrist with hand etc.) for ‘madness’, which I found extremely uncomfortable, particularly as a group of schoolchildren in the audience fell into hysterics. Menzies was better as his Poor Tom disguise was cast off, bringing some pathos into his scenes with his father, but all the good work was cast off in the awful concept adopted for the final duel with Edmund, for which the entire tone of the play switched to ugly travesty. At the third blast of a toy trumpet, Edgar appeared with his face masked by an England flag and carrying two plastic swords. The two brothers flapped their swords at each other, Edmund scorning the toy weapons, before they tussled and Edgar forced his sword down Edmund’s throat, effectively choking him on the plastic (yet not preventing Edmund screaming his story for several minutes afterwards, another incongruity). Quite why Edgar would want to take such an irreverent attitude towards the fight was a mystery considering the character’s progression to that point, and the whole scene instead felt crude and gratuitous.

This was a sorely disappointing Lear, which seemed to have very little of interest to say about the play and instead relied on incongruent images and gimmicks to accompany the text. The entire tone of the production felt out of keeping with the formal set-up (the performance lasted three and a half hours, with two intervals) and the relatively dignified central performance was undermined by a crude and ineffective approach to the rest of the play. Flashes of inspiration failed to be bound together by a sense of purpose. This was an early performance, and hopefully the production will grow - there's definitely potential - , but for now it appeared to simply lack a clear sense of what it wanted to be.

This review originally appeared at Shakespeare Revue.

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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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