All entries for November 2011

November 27, 2011

The Changeling (Shakespeare Institute Players) @ The Shakespeare Institute, Stratford–upon–Avon

Writing about web page

The poster for the new production by the Shakespeare Institute Players advertised “The Changeling by Thomas Middleton”. Beneath, in much smaller letters, came the almost apologetic “and William Rowley”. It’s an interesting reminder of the hierarchies that persist in the presentation of collaborative work, even when Shakespeare isn’t involved. It also pointed to a severe editing of the text – this production, two hours including interval, reduced the subplot to its barest bones, leaving nothing more than the vague impression of two disguised servants wooing the bewildered Isabella (Yolana Wassersug).

Joy Leslie Gibson’s production focused instead on the primary story, particularly the intractable bond that developed between Deflores (Matt Kubus) and Beatrice-Joanna (Jamie Sowers). The entire cast remained onstage for most of the performance, sitting in a horseshoe that heightened the claustrophobia of the piece and the sense of always being watched. As characters edged around the back of their seated counterparts, little references (tongues poked out by extra madmen, Beatrice-Joanna handing Deflores a dagger) kept an exchange going between the seated and performing figures, moving the play towards its relentless conclusion.

It’s not my policy to focus overly on particular performances when reviewing the Players (seeing as I’m friends with several of the cast), but I'll just pick out two that particularly stood out as important interpretations. Kubus’s Deflores was stunningly good, and remarkably sympathetic. With welts on his face and a hobbled leg, he edged around the stage leaning heavily on a stick, appealing in soliloquy to the audience and cowing himself before his onstage peers. His demeanour throughout was of the wronged victim, pointed up in the early cruel act of Beatrice-Joanna as she pushed the cripple hard to the floor while giving him her glove. His obsessive love for Beatrice-Joanna was disquieting in its calmness, she succumbing to his firm and still demands without need for crude seduction or unnecessarily perverted language. He simply felt that this was a recompense that the world owed him, and his busy industry kept him engaging throughout, particularly in the amusing scene as he marched through with a gun upraised to “clear the chimney”. His double-act with Sowers worked well throughout, drawing her closer to him and bringing them into a collusion based on earned trust and a reckless resignation to their fates. As he crawled across the stage towards her body, dying, one felt the tragedy as he fell just short of being able to reach her hand.

The other standout performance was Helen Osborne’s Diaphanta. This sly maid drew a steady stream of subtlety and innuendo from her lines and kept up a steady background rapport with Jasperino (Charlie Morton) during the early scenes, adding colour to a relatively linear story. Her eager offering of herself to take Beatrice-Joanna’s place in Alsemero’s bed and her entertaining acting out of the stages of laughter and melancholy following her taking of the chastity test were amusing, but nothing to her appearance in nightwear and amazing bed hair, panting joyfully of her exertions to her quietly fuming mistress.

Beyond these performances, an able cast kept the story fast-paced and clear, conjuring an atmosphere of double-crossing and mistrust that situated the Deflores/Beatrice-Joanna plot within a wider context of duality and betrayal. While the subplot was too perfunctorily handled to draw out the important thematic connections between it and the main plot, the cast did a solid job (particularly Emma Johnson’s rather intimidating Lollio), and the chamber atmosphere of the setting suited the play well. While the run was all-too-brief (five performances in three days), it offered an efficient and often interesting take on a true masterpiece of the Jacobean stage.

Macbeth @ The New Theatre, Nottingham

Just a quick note, for completeness' sake, to say that I made it to the Nottingham New Theatre's production of Macbeth last week. I don't review shows that feature students who I do or will teach, but great to see the country's only completely student-run theatre in action, and an interesting idea to set it in an office environment. I'm only disappointed that Birnam Wood didn't turn out to be a tent city of student protesters.....

November 22, 2011

Cardenio (Read Not Dead) @ Shakespeare's Globe

We've been spoiled for productions and readings of versions of Cardenio/Double Falsehood over the last two years. We've had the RSC's version, two at the Union Theatre, a full production in New York and readings at Nottingham and Warwick. Older but also younger than all of these is Gary Taylor's "reconstruction" (as opposed to the RSC's "reimagining"). Taylor has been working on a version combining Theobald's text with reconstructed sections of Cervantes's Don Quixote for nigh-on two decades, and this weekend it came to the Globe in its latest iteration as part of the "Read Not Dead" series of rehearsed readings.

Read Not Dead is rough and ready, but I'm also impressed at how full and dynamic the stagings are. Under the direction of Wilson Milam, the large company gave a lively rendition that, while obviously unable to capture the finer effects of disguise and action, gave Taylor's text a fair hearing.

It was, overall, quite brilliant. By far the masterstroke was the incorporation of a subplot tracing the early fortunes of the old man Quesada, who runs made and renames himself Don Quixote. Taylor's text tracked his early exploits with Sancho, his encounters with the mad Cardenio and his final gulling by the Barber and Curate that causes him to return, beaten, to his home town. Tim McInnerny led the cast with a gloriously funny rendition of Quesada that imagined him as exaggerated mock hero, conjuring up his imagined surroundings with a confidence in his resonant voice that made sense of the willingness of those he encounters to indulge him. McInnerny was ably supported by Laura Dewey's tiny, wry Sancho, who struggled to drag an enormous broadsword around the stage and muttered mutinously, undercutting Quesada's bluster.

In some ways, the success of these scenes (particularly a passionate bowling scene that introduced the ludicrous knight) had a negative impact on the "main" story, that of Cardenio, which was calmer and less captivating as a result. However, there was much to be liked here. Taylor's text beefed up the role of Cardenio substantially, giving him a stronger connection to Fernando than exists in Double Falsehood and emphasising the importance of Fernando's betrayal of Cardenio. He also had several more mad scenes, including a rather cruel instance of beating Quesada and Sancho that sat slightly uneasily (despite it being faithful to Cervantes). However, these scenes kept a clear through line for the character that allowed us to invest more in his final reunion with Lucinda.

The other key character given a much increased role was Violenta. In the hands of Linsey Davies, she was imagined as a particularly feisty girl, very much sexually attracted to Fernando and keen to solemnise marriage with him. Here, even more so than in the Doran production, the attention was not on rape but on the betrayal of a promised oath, allowing the audience to invest in the idea of a romantic comedy rather than something more severe. I preferred the commitment of this production to the ambivalence of the RSC version, which raised but fudged the issue of rape in a way I found particularly disquieting. Violenta was also recruited by the Curate and Barber for the "curing" of Quesada, posing as a foreign princess and uniting the two plot strands. Davies was excellent throughout, creating a rounded and engaging character who arguably became more central than Cardenio.

Displaced in order to build up these two characters was Fernando, played by Jack Parker. Parker's interpretation and Taylor's script cast Fernando as a weaker and less manipulative character than in any of the other interpretations I've seen - a rather inept wooer and almost helpless in the face of Violenta's fiery demeanour. One felt almost sorry for this Fernando, for whom nothing ever seemed to go quite right. His scenes were also reduced in the second half, which from my point of view was this adaptation's biggest weakness, as by his appearance in the final scene we had almost forgotten quite what he had done - the encounter between Fernando and Lucinda when she is released from her coffin seems to me to be an essential part of the dramatic movement in those final scenes, giving a real edge to her fear as she is confronted once more with her persecutor and adding ambivalence to Ricardo's promises of help.

Coffins were key throughout. The play began with the Duke ruminating on his own, and they reappeared for the abduction from the nunnery and for Quesada's final entrance into the reunited party. This scene had a Shakespearean sadness to it, reminiscent of the gulling of Malvolio but without any self-awareness on the part of the gull. The final scene was, overall, a little weak, but I'm inclined to put this down primarily to the lack of resources - the stage directions called for a full masque of dancing nymphs, one of whom would turn out to be Cardenio, as well as the disguises and coffins. A little less of Theobald's sentiment may also have helped, as the reunion of Fernando and Violenta in particular felt too neat. However, it resolved the plots satisfactorily and brought the play to a neat conclusion in Quesada's appeal to the audience for applause.

There were other interesting decisions. I was particularly struck by the transposition of the Duke's pivotal "Fathers are as gods" speech to the Curate in the wedding scene - it worked well in the new setting, but I felt its lack in the final scene. Following Taylor's theories about subplots, the Fabian/Lopez dialogue was removed to Act 4, where it became the words of Sancho and Quesada on encountering the mad Cardenio. With the act recast as a love betrayal rather than a rape, there was no room for the "Henriquez" speech of Double Falsehood, my favourite bit of that play but here unfitting. The introduction of a more substantive female servant for Lucinda was a good choice that added much-needed banter to the early scenes, and Camillo and Bernardo benefitted from inclusion in the bowling scene, where their reactions to each other and to Quesada helped shape their characters for the rest of the play.

The overwhelming impression was of a coherent and entertaining play that deserves full production (and will receive it in Indianapolis in April). It's inevitable that any reconstruction of a lost play won't tick everything on everybody's wishlist, but Taylor's version offers a great piece of theatre that does justice to the extant sources and creates something with its own distinct character. It'll be supported, too, by essays in the forthcoming collection The Quest for Cardenio edited by Taylor and David Carnegie, due out in 2012. A fascinating experiment that made for a very enjoyable afternoon.

November 10, 2011

Much Ado About Nothing (Mappa Mundi/Theatr Mwldan) @ Lakeside Arts Centre

Writing about web page

Expectations were set high by Welsh company Mappa Mundi's self-description of its work: "gloriously irreverent, populist and accessible." A fun-loving Much Ado is always to be welcomed, and the setting - Britain between the wars, a culture where women have been taking on traditional men's roles - offered an interesting take on the traditional war between the sexes.

Much Ado poster

In the event, the production offered little in the way of irreverence, although populist and accessible it certainly was. This was a straight and surprisingly sober Much Ado that presented the play clearly and amusingly, but too often was just a little dull.

The small company (nine actors) made for some odd casting decisions, particularly as John Cording's Leonato ended up trying to marry Hero and Claudio himself, and interrupting his own questions. Conrade, Ursula, Antonio, Balthasar and the Watch (apart from Dogberry and Verges) were all cut, and as a result lead characters ended up making some uncharacteristic decisions: Claudio sang for the prince, and Benedick was the one who came up with the plan to conceal Hero.

In the latter case, this was particularly indicative of the rather serious portrayal of Benedick - and, indeed, Beatrice - in this production. For the first time I've ever seen, no-one laughed at the line "Kill Claudio", which came naturally out of a much weightier connection between the two. Liam Tobin and Lynne Seymour were rarely laugh-out-loud funny, and the overhearing scenes were particularly tortured, as the two crawled about the stage holding chairs above their heads and similar. The banter was reasonably snappy, but what instead emerged was a maturer, quieter relationship.

The wartime setting ultimately translated to little more than Beatrice wearing trousers and the recasting of Dogberry and Verges as women, who cackled comically over handbags and "naughty" villains as they played at being police. However, it lent a weariness to proceedings that saw men and women alike looking for companionship. For Beatrice and Benedick, conflict was a slow delay to their getting together; for Gwawr Loader's Hero and Robin Waters's Claudio, it was a more serious betrayal of trust at a time when people needed nothing more than someone to trust.

As such, the better parts of the production were those that touched on the edgier aspects of the play. Claudio's hatred for a distraught Hero was topped only by Leonato's shocking rage at his fallen daughter, although the culpability of Don Pedro and Claudio was mitigated by Borachio's wooing of Margaret being staged, with Margaret carefully positioned so the onlookers could not get a clear sight, and a gratuitous "You are my Hero" was added. More interesting was Don Pedro's proposal to Beatrice, which was played as a genuine spontaneous decision, and was met with Beatrice's hysterical laughter, to Pedro's embarrassment.

The production was nothing more than occasionally interesting, though. It rarely sparked, its gentle humour not making up for a lack of bite in the barbs. Yet its aims for lightness meant that it was never able to capitalise on its more interesting edges. As an accessible, clear touring Much Ado, this was ideal, but it never transcended those very modest aims.

November 06, 2011


Writing about web page

This is a reprint of my article "Much Ado about Anonymous", written for the University of Warwick Knowledge Centre and published here.

Shakespeare scholars have been outraged about Roland Emmerich’s new film since filming first began. Anonymous tells the story of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans), who the film contends was the true author of the plays attributed to Shakespeare. This highly vocal fringe theory has been the bane of Shakespeareans for decades, and the fear was that the film would bring the “Question” into the mainstream. The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust co-ordinated a concerted counter-campaign, and the media lapped up the controversy as public debates were staged over Shakespeare’s true identity. Stephen Marche warns in his New York Times article that “Professors of Shakespeare . . . are blissfully unaware of the impending disaster that this film means for their professional lives”. Now that the film itself has arrived, however, it seems that academic fears may have been extremely premature.

Most importantly, the film theatricalises its own story. Derek Jacobi (a prominent “anti-Stratfordian”) arrives at a theatre by taxi, marches through the wings and stands before a curtain, which opens to reveal a hushed audience. As Jacobi explains that he is to tell them a new story, a story that undoes the myth of Shakespeare, the scene dissolves into a (finely-realised) period depiction of Elizabethan London, with Ben Jonson clutching an armful of manuscripts and running into the empty Globe theatre to escape a troupe of pursuing soldiers.

Academic outrage has stemmed from the impression that the film will strengthen the belief that Oxford genuinely wrote Shakespeare’s plays. Theatricalised in this way, however, it never feels as if the film is supposed to be “truthful”. Critics will point to the plethora of historical inaccuracies – Christopher Marlowe died in 1593, not 1599, and the Globe burned down in 1613, not 1604. Romeo and Juliet had been performed, and Venus and Adonis published, long before the events depicted here; and the play performed at the Globe prior to the Essex rebellion was Richard II, not Richard III. These are only the most obvious of many inaccuracies.

Gleeful scholars will doubtless read the sheer volume of historical “mistakes” as a sign of the film-makers’ ignorance, but this is beside the point. Quite simply, this isn’t a film that is interested in “fact” in the sense of historical accuracy, but “truth” in the manner employed by Shakespeare himself in writing his history plays. Emmerich and his team rewrite history freely in order to advance a specific agenda: the rehabilitation of Oxford’s character and a reading of Shakespeare’s plays as political and personal analogies for a courtly life.

In this sense, the film is not a threat to mainstream scholarship, as it doesn’t attempt to compete on scholarly grounds. It is also, despite studio publicity materials, not a polemic: the authorship question is one of the film’s several strands, and at times feels trivial compared to the more sensational court story.

The film is, however, designed to offend anyone who thinks William Shakespeare should only be treated with respect. Here, Will (Rafe Spall) is a drunken comic actor who seizes an opportunity when Jonson refuses Oxford’s commission to take credit for his plays. Shakespeare’s fame and ego inflate throughout the play, and he begins demanding more money and power. His only moment of uncertainty comes when Jonson attempts to prove Shakespeare’s illiteracy, thwarted only by a fortuitous lack of ink.

This is the real issue, implicit in response articles such as James Shapiro’s “Hollywood Dishonors the Bard”. The film irreverently sends up notions of dignity and shows Shakespeare falling over, struggling for words and crowd-surfing at the Globe, while his fellow dramatists – Thomas Dekker, Thomas Nashe, Kit Marlowe and Jonson – look on in disgust. It’s an ugly and comic portrait; but it is no more of a threat to Shakespeare’s reputation than Blackadder II was to Elizabeth I’s. The performance actually evokes the Shakespeare of John Manningham’s famous anecdote, which recalls Shakespeare racing Burbage to an assignation with a female audience member. The comic treatment of the character is self-consciously parodic, rather than a serious attempt at character assassination.

However, the fact that Anonymous isn’t a threat to scholarship doesn’t make it a good film. Emmerich’s plot construction is a mess, jumping across 40 years of history with little coherence. There is too much going on: Oxford’s romance with Elizabeth, his feud with the Cecil family, his relationship to Essex and Southampton and their rebellion, and the lives of the dramatists. Most damningly, the political and theatrical stories never quite marry up, apart from in performances where Polonius and Richard III become transparent representations of the Cecils. The power and influence of the theatre is too rarely seen. Instead, the real theatre comes from the climactic revelation delivered by Cecil to Oxford, the ludicrousness of which leaves an audience in no doubt of the film’s status as fiction.

There’s much to like here, regardless. Edward Hogg makes for a troubled (and hunchbacked) Robert Cecil; Vanessa Redgrave gives her all as a doting Elizabeth; and Trystan Gravelle practically twirls his moustache as the unscrupulous and flamboyantly gay Marlowe. The real standout, however, is Sebastian Armesto as Ben Jonson, whose story frames the action. As he watches his illiterate fellow achieve the literary celebrity he desires for himself, and is taken into Oxford’s confidence, Armesto finds a human story as the eternal runner-up, bitter yet maintaining something approaching integrity.

The film is flawed, but its flaws are also its charm. It is not an anti-Stratfordian tract but an anti-Stratfordian fantasy, and should be watched and interpreted as such. As with any blockbuster take on history, there is a responsibility on the part of educators to explain the inaccuracies (see also: King Arthur, Braveheart), but those in the mood for a more literary episode of The Tudors will be well served here. The more sober lesson to draw is that knee-jerk reactions to an unorthodox story are unprofessional and unnecessary, and rather serve to legitimise the object of scorn. The film as presented is a fiction, framed within Jacobi’s theatre, and as such harms the serious anti-Stratfordian cause far more than helps it.

November 03, 2011

A Midsummer Night's Dream (Filter) @ Curve, Leicester

Writing about web page

Filter’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream marks the company’s second foray into Shakespeare, following its sublime and irreverent Twelfth Night. The company specialise in a form of deconstructed theatre, treating performances as “gigs” where all the machinery of performance – instruments, sound boxes, stage management, cast – are on stage throughout, and the show responds to the energy of its audience with a rare bravery.

From the start, it became clear that the company were fortunate in the young, rowdy audience in the Studio at Curve in Leicester. Full of school parties with plenty to say for themselves, it responded instantly to the appearance of an Irish Peter Quince, who came forward to welcome everyone to the show and entered into banter with the crowd. Upon learning, in a whispered conversation with the stage manager, that “local boy: Sir Richard Attenborough was not, in fact, available to play Bottom this evening, he recruited a planted audience member to play Bottom, though not before an enthusiastic student had made his own play for the part, forcing the company to fall back on made-up insurance regulations to engineer the correct choice. From this moment, it was clear that audience interaction was to be encouraged and respected, and that the company were equal to the challenge of the unexpected.

The heavily edited script riffed on Shakespeare rather than followed, with much left out – the marriage framing was completely dropped from the final act, leaving Pyramus and Thisbe to be played purely for the sake of the Leicester audience, and Starveling and Stout were dropped altogether. Flute, Quince and Snug were the onstage band, and Bottom – played by an audience member who claimed to be a musician – became their lead vocalist, repeatedly breaking out of character to demand another screamed rock anthem. The band imagery was maintained in Ferdy Roberts’s Puck, imagined here as an aging roadie with grey t-shirt, beard, tool belt and walkie-talkie, over which Oberon communicated with him.

By casting the play as concert, the play itself was viewed as the serial mounting of shows, whether on the obvious level of the Mechanicals or in Puck and Oberon setting up Titania with Bottom or the lovers in conflict. The climactic scene, as the four lovers began warring, allowed Puck and Oberon to sit on a pair of camp seats, grab a beer and bread snacks each and watch the show, drawing laughs every time they turned their chairs for a better view.

To describe the jokes would rob them of much of their humour, but I have to note that an audience of fairly hardened teenagers showed no reservations as they literally cried with laughter. Jonathan Broadbent's Oberon in particular brought down the house. First appearing in a dressing gown, he threw it off to reveal a Superman costume underneath, which he supplemented with a manic evil laugh and childlike tantrums. This was a boy with power, playing with his walkie-talkie and thoroughly enjoying himself. To turn himself “invisible”, he made zapping noises with his hands and petulantly informed the audience he couldn’t be seen. He made his first exit by lying across a swivel chair and pretending to fly offstage, only for a loud crash to be heard. As the cast called after him to see if he was okay, he yelled back “I’m INVISIBLE!”. He wore a sling for the remainder of the play.

Childish references were put in everywhere. Lysander and Demetrius, after exiting for their duel, were reintroduced in the manner of arcade beat-em-up heroes, before proceeding to mime a game of Pong. Quince ordered Flute to play Thisbe as Vivian Leigh, and Hermia erected an instant tent for her luxurious night’s sleep. During the final quarrel, which saw the four young lovers race around the entire auditorium, Lysander and Demetrius began throwing bread at Hermia, which she threw back. As audience members began to be hit and started throwing it back, Puck and Oberon ran round passing out more bread until the entire theatre was engaged in a food fight, culminating in everyone throwing everything they had at Hermia.

I did have concern, however, about the cruelty implied in this episode. The enthusiasm with which not only the on-stage characters but also the audience were encouraged to throw bread at the wretched Hermia jarred with the generosity elsewhere. To make the most delighted and participatory moment of the play the physical abuse of the character, eventually knocked backwards into her tent, surely invited some form of internal critique or challenge to the audience, which was not forthcoming. To take the most severe stance, it seemed to condone the idea that the best way to deal with a woman asserting her own rights is to subject her to physical and verbal abuse until she shuts up and/or runs away. Despite the comic tone, this scene felt a little ugly, and drew my mind to the “Oh, not again” response of Theseus to Hippolyta storming out at the end of the first scene, and to the ease with which Helena succumbed to the altered Demetrius’ advances before changing her mind. As hysterical as the production was, a few too many of the laughs came at the expense of the women for my tastes.

The lovers were cast young and very sexual, with Helena allowing both Lysander and Demetrius to writhe with her on the floor for a while before realising that there were two men involved. There were a lot of teen ‘tudes, and the men in particular made themselves ridiculous as they gyrated to the music in their heads while wooing Helena. Theseus, Hippolyta and Egeus were played straight, in contrast to what followed; but the always-excellent Gemma Saunders had relatively little to do as Titania. Bottom had more impact. As the actor reading his script for the first half of the show, he inserted comments and judgements into the action, before coming into his own as he read the rehearsal lines. Re-entering as the donkey, there was no physical change in his appearance, but the rest of the cast used coconut shells and braying noises to add imagined donkey aspects to his gait and voice. Puck dangled a carrot for him, which he bit off a huge chunk of, and the rest of the cast began corpsing as he patiently munched on his carrot with an apologetic shrug to the audience before resuming.

The delight of unexpected moments such as this was in how shared they were with the audience. The back and forth within the auditorium was such that when, for example, Quince took the audience request of “Do it as a Gothic Horror” by performing the Prologue in the style of Bela Lugosi, one could no longer tell whether it was a genuine request or a plant. Bottom’s finale as Pyramus was initially played surprisingly straight, but concluded with an eccentric death scene. He lay on the floor, and then screamed at the band when they began playing the exit music. Lying back down, the entire production stopped, allowing the audience to become increasingly hysterical. After a minute or so, members of the audience began cat-calling, including the teen from the start shouting out “I bet you wish I’d done it now”. Pyramus’s still death lasted a seeming eternity, until he finally jumped up and led the cast in a final number.

The standing ovation was testament to how expertly this production addressed its audience. Audience and cast boosted each other’s energy levels, creating a contract of mutual challenge that invested the entire auditorium in the performance. Despite my concerns about the bullying atmosphere of certain moment, this was an absolute triumph.

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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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  • I think you may be over analysing. Wasn't it just meant to be a bit of a history lesson? I remember … by Sue on this entry
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