All entries for December 2008

December 31, 2008

Top Ten of 2008

Happy new year! As 2009 dawns, here's a look back at my theatregoing in 2008, via my top ten productions. Without further ado:

10. The Merry Wives of Windsor (Shakespeare's Globe, August)

A close call between this and the Globe's other standout production, Timon of Athens. While the inventive Timon flagged in its second act, however, Merry Wives showcased the Globe at its absolute peak, combining intelligence and slapstick to create a thoroughly enjoyable performance. The kind of production which forces you to ask why a play is revived so rarely.

9. The Brothers Size (Birmingham Rep, The Door, December)

A beautiful exploration of male love and the bonds of brotherhood. Raw, powerful and poetic, Tarrell Alvin McCraney's excellent text provided the basis for a physical and emotionally bruising studio piece.

8. Endgame (Liverpool Everyman, April)

A production that passed with relatively little notice in Liverpool, where focus was ill-advisedly on October's abominable King Lear instead. Matthew Kelly headed a tremendous cast who provided a bleak but often hysterical straight reading of a Beckett masterpiece.

7. Boris Gudonov (Warwick Arts Centre, May)

Cheek by Jowl's outstanding Russian ensemble returned to Coventry with Pushkin's Boris Gudonov in a production that oozed class. A difficult one to explain; it's the images that have remained with me, but a fantastic cast and clear storytelling were the highlights at the time. It says something that I barely remember it was in Russian - this was theatre at its clearest.

6. Macbeth: Who is that Bloodied Man? (National Theatre, Square2, August)

Macbeth liberated from words. This Polish production provided unforgettable images of apocalyptic carnage: motorbikes, witches on stilts, a drum full of skulls and the final, searing visage of Macbeth burning on his throne. Deep and detailed, the experience was heightened by being played on a balmy summers night on the bank of the Thames.

5. A Midsummer Night's Dream (Warwick Arts Centre, June)

I'm slightly surprised to find this one so high up my own list, particularly as I know it wasn't to everyone's tastes, but I can't help it. Played in Footsbarn's own travelling tent, the company created a magical environment for a surreal performance rooted in folklore and fairy tales. Not just for kids.

4. The Glass Menagerie (Royal Exchange, May)

My first Tennessee Williams, and a fantastically staged production. The performers gave the characters the richness and complexity they deserved, while the design was possibly the best of the year, particularly in an exciting use of lighting that continually brought out different features in the play's single set.

3. Hamlet (Tobacco Factory, April)

As much as I wanted to get the RSC's very good Hamlet onto this list, it didn't make the cut. Jonathan Miller's in Bristol, however, was the best Shakespeare I saw last year. A studio-sized production in period costume, this was an almost effects-free production, instead relying on detailed performances and fantastic readings. Jamie Ballard finally got the role he deserved, and even small parts had their moment to shine.

2. Black Watch (Warwick Arts Centre, April)

The production which was actually as good as the hype suggested. A powerful script, impressive technical wizardry (I can still hear the fighter planes screaming overhead) that stretched Warwick Arts Centre, top-notch performances and a timely message combined to make this a proper piece of event theatre. Funny, moving and unmissable.

1. The Revenger's Tragedy (National Theatre, June)

My choice for play of the year is the production that finally gave Middleton the treatment he deserved. A revolving stage allowed for impressive dumbshows filling in the backstory, a live DJ score and dancers created a seedy nightclub atmosphere and Middleton's language had never sounded so contemporary. Triumphant, and one of the best adverts for Middleton's relevance and playability today.

And some bonus prizes:

Academic Highlight of the Year: Play Without a Title (Fail Better/ CAPITAL Centre)

This performance of a new translation of Lorca's unfinished play was perhaps the most important production I saw this year, and impressive direction and design complemented an accomplished student cast. Needs to be seen beyond Warwick, urgently.

Student Production of the Year: The Skriker (WUDS)

VERY narrowly missed out on my top ten. The most professional student production I've ever seen, the most accomplished use of promenade playing I've ever seen and an absolutely stellar cast. Deservedly won several awards at NSDF.

Scene of the Year: The drinking scene from Twelfth Night (Filter)

Described in detail on the blog, this scene effectively turned into a full-on midnight party in the Courtyard Theatre. The pizza was great, and the time taken to create the party made Malvolio's interruption all the more effective.

Cute Moment of the Year: The Bunny in Rapunzel (Kneehigh)


Honourable Mention 1: The RSC Histories Cycle

Honourable Mention 2: Brief Encounter (Kneehigh)

These two honourable mentions would both have made it into the top ten (The Histories would probably have occupied several places), were it not for the fact that I first saw them in 2006 and 2007. Nonetheless, the performances of these productions that I saw in 2008 were wonderful, the plays continuing to represent the best of the RSC and Kneehigh.

So, a good year! Not a vintage one for Shakespeare, but not a month has gone by without a couple of very decent productions. Now, roll on 2009!

December 23, 2008

Don John @ The Courtyard Theatre

I'm always intrigued by the RSC 'Christmas Show'. Understandably, the company doesn't put on a panto, but there is usually something at this kind of year for all the family. A few years back, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe filled the slot, followed by Great Expectations. The Complete Works Festival saw the panto-esque Merry Wives: The Musical, while last year the Little Angel Theatre brought the marvellous Fantastic Mr. Fox to Stratford. This year, though, seems to be an exception. Romeo and Juliet seems to be pulling in young audiences, but is nothing more than a mediocre straight production of the play, while Kneehigh's long-awaited return to Stratford with Don John comes with an over-14 age recommendation. Fun for all the family this ain't.

Don John, based on Mozart's opera, was a faintly depressing tale of soulless sex and aimlessness, set in the 'Winter of Discontent' in 1978 Britain. Strikers huddled on stage around a brazier, actors climbed over empty shipping crates and Prime Minister James Callaghan's voice crackled over a portable transistor radio. Into this bleak world entered Don John, a hollow-eyed misfit who lounged above the action and picked out the girls, one by one, whom he planned to seduce, enjoy and forget.

The play had little sympathy for John himself, refusing to flinch from the destructive effects of his careless actions. His path crossed those of two separate couples: Derek the vicar and his wife Anna, and Zerlina the cleaner with her fiance, Alan. Into the mess stumbled Elvira, a previous conquest of John convinced she was the one to 'save him' from himself. And, accompanying John all the way, the rather pathetic figure of Nobby, charged with taking polaroids of the girls and cleaning up John's mess after him.

'Care' was the theme here, the emotional and familial care that John neither understood nor took interest in learning. One of Kneehigh's recurring obsessions is with the family and enduring relationships, and those concerns have never been more dominant than here. Alan and Zerlina's tender affection for each other revolved around books and words, the two introducing each other to their native languages, and her moment of wild lust with John, knocking over her own wedding cake, was nothing more than a moment of shame that was easily overcome in the cold light of day. Gisli Orn Gardarsson was wildly sensual and physical as the eponymous anti-hero, always dangerous in his seductions, but ultimately the safety of Alan's genuine love was enough to leave John forgotten and irrelevant.

Sympathy for John came from the entire lack of self-control that led him to repeatedly destructive behaviour. As much as John proclaimed he was enjoying himself, Gardasson played him with a restless sadness that showed him aware of the emptiness of his existence but afraid to confront the fact. His cold treatment of Elvira ("I don't need to be saved") was symptomatic of his pushing away of hope or change, afraid to ever pause in case his past caught up with him.

The most moving plotline, though, revolved around Craig Johnson's Derek and Nina Dogg Filippusdottir's Anna. Anna, trapped by having to look after her dying father, was also sexually frustrated, and her desperate attempts to undo Derek's trousers while her father slept were heartbreaking as Derek denied her the one thing she needed. John subsequently entered and blindfolded Anna, "cheering her up" as he later put it. This trickery (dramatically and emotionally complex, simultaneously rape and liberation for Anna) was compounded by his accidental shooting of Anna's father, the guilt of which weighed upon John for the remainder of the show until his death. Derek was far more than a simple gulled husband, however; his first appearance, presiding over an empty church, was both funny in the ridiculousness of the situation but also upsetting; his isolation leading him to cry out against God for the situation he had left the country in.

The set was one of the most complex yet seen in the Courtyard, a series of iron containers piled high up to the ceiling. One of these was dragged to the main stage on several occasions, folding out to reveal a scene inside, locating Britain's heart within the empty containers that represented the financial decline; which in itself, of course, is particularly resonant at the moment. The evocation of 1978 was one of the show's most successful aspects, particularly in the use of pop songs from that year to underscore the action and the continual reminders, including a black and white telly that showed clips from old programmes (and the Test Card during the interval). The live band were particularly impressive, playing a score that was unmistakably a Stu Barker creation but rooted itself in the rock stylings of the period.

A familiarity with Don Giovanni would, I think, have helped me appreciate the references to the opera (indeed, bits of the score were integrated into the action), but this was a play that stood on its own feet. The associations between 1978 and 2008 are prescient, but this production was strongest in the more timeless ideas of familial warmth and heartfelt relationships. As John descended into ill health, he 'saw' Anna reunited with her father and Alan and Zerlina renewing their engagement, evocations of the 'care' which he had ignored through an existence that, ultimately, meant nothing. His only positive impact - and a backhanded one at that - was Anna's realisation of her own potential for freedom, unrestricted by a feeble husband and needy father. The play finished, though, with John dying alone on the ground as darkness fell around him. Not a festive message, but a powerful one.

Luckily, we didn't get to go out on a gloomy note; following the curtain calls, Barry White started pumping out over the soundtrack and the cast pulled up audience members to start a dance on stage. The audience had been relatively quiet for most of the night, but by the end appeared to have been thoroughly won over by Kneehigh's inimitable good spirits.

One last note - as John died, the radio played the shipping broadcast. Following the RSC's The Tempest and Filter's Twelfth Night, this is the third time in two years that this programme has been used onstage in Stratford. Why so popular all of a sudden?!

December 16, 2008


To offset the rather negative tone of the last few posts, I thought I'd just post some of the things I'm really looking forward to next year, partly to remind myself but also so I can officially start getting excited about the new year! Coming up:

All's Well that Ends Well: directed by Marianne Elliott at the National Theatre (thanks Duncan).
Antony and Cleopatra: at the Tobacco Factory.
As You Like It: all over! One at the RSC, another at the Globe and a third by Dash Arts at the Curve in Leicester.
The Comedy of Errors: In Stratford with the RSC Young People's Company, and also the Globe on tour.
Hamlet: The Donmar production at the Wyndham's with Jude Law.
Julius Caesar: at the Tobacco Factory, and Lucy Bailey debuts at the RSC.
Love's Labour's Lost: Revival of the excellent Globe production.
Macbeth: Cheek by Jowl's new production at the Barbican (though not until 2010). There's also a young people's version at the National.
The Merchant of Venice: Propeller, probably at Liverpool Playhouse.
A Midsummer Night's Dream: Propeller again, in rep with Merchant, and another touring version by the Globe.
The RSC's touring production lighting up Warwick Arts Centre, and Lenny Henry joins Northern Broadsides.
Romeo and Juliet: The Globe on home turf.
The Tempest: The extremely exciting co-production between the RSC and Baxter.
Troilus and Cressida: A big undertaking for the Globe.
Twelfth Night: Always a possibility I might make it down to the Wyndhams. Also, Ninagawa puts a Japanese spin on at the Barbican.
The Winter's Tale: The RSC, but also a starry production at the Old Vic.

In the non-Shakespearean lists, there are various things happening. I'm probably most interested in the long-awaited Waiting for Godot in London with Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, but also hoping to catch the National's Dido, Queen of Carthage.

It's looking to be a fascinating year, hopefully! Anything really obvious I've missed in there?

Note: This entry being updated as new productions added.

December 13, 2008

Twelfth Night vs. National Rail

Right now, at the time of writing, I should be fifty minutes into the Donmar Warehouse's acclaimed new production of Twelfth Night, watching Derek Jacobi, Ron Cook et al. put my favourite comedy through its paces. However, I'm instead in my study. Why?


That's right, yet again Britain is taken completely by surprise when (heavens forfend!) there's a bit of drizzle. The entire rail transport system has ground to a halt and, despite mad dashes around the midlands, there was not a single way of getting down to the capital that would have got us there in time for the first half of the play. And there was me under the impression that Britain is known internationally for its weather - how can it keep happening that there is no kind of fallback plan for this scenario?!

I'm extremely disappointed and fed up. This is the production, more than any, that I've been most looking forward to this year. I booked seats back in January, and for the first time ever had paid TOP PRICES for FRONT ROW SEATS IN THE STALLS. Those seats are now sitting empty.

And, to make matters worse, the no-transfers, no-exchanges policy of the Donmar/Wyndham's means that I couldn't transfer my tickets or get another date. So, that's £70 on two top price tickets quite emphatically wasted. I understand the theory behind the policy (they can't risk having more than one set of tickets in circulation etc etc.), but really, you would have hoped for some kind of leeway or negotiation.

To sum up: I'm £35 out of pocket, have missed the production (unless I shell out another £35), and to cap it all off, it's not even raining anymore. Not a great day for this reviewer.

December 10, 2008

The Hamlet Drama

Sigh. Only a few months ago, I barely bothered to review the RSC's Hamlet as, frankly, I was bored of the blanket coverage of the play even before I'd seen it. And since then, there's been no let up. There was the drama about the skull, then the drama when the skull was removed, and now there's the drama surrounding Tennant having to miss the first few London performances and be replaced by an understudy for the capital's press night. We've even had stories bemoaning the amount of stories.

Well, now I'm just sick of it. It's a fine production (though hardly as epoch-making as some of the raving might suggest - I thought the Tobacco Factory's was better), but the hype surrounding it has, to my mind, been the death of it. Is it not enough to simply go and see a good cast performing a great play? No, it has to be An Event. And that Event status has, to my mind, been in many respects seriously detrimental, not least in the overweighted focus on one actor (despite the star names and excellent performances in other roles).

But, all credit to Edward Bennett. Despite some of the appalling treatment the production has received in London by theatregoers who have decided not to bother going because of Tennant's absence, he has gone out and, in all probabability, given the performance of his life. The critical attention he gets is thoroughly deserved - for not only is he taking on Hamlet, but he's taking on the ludicrous media circus that surrounds this production. And all credit to the RSC for sticking to their principles and letting him take on the role on press night.

Now, if I heard nothing else about this production EVER AGAIN, that would be lovely.

December 08, 2008

Romeo and Juliet @ The Courtyard Theatre

Writing about web page

I'm not going to beat around the bush with this review. The RSC's new production of Romeo and Juliet is one of the worst productions of Shakespeare I've ever had the misfortune to sit through.

As hard as I tried to find some positive aspects to the production, I honestly couldn't find anything to redeem it. A Godfather-influenced aesthetic (trumpet/accordion soundtrack, suits and flick-knives, dynastical feuds) was a nice idea, if obvious, but added little to the production. A beautiful stage set for the final crypt scene (played in near darkness, lit with torch light against dry ice) was atmospheric, but was the first bit of visual interest in a 3-and-a-quarter hour production. I can't even claim that the production was mercifully short - it was slow, long and dreary.

The most negative aspects came in the performances. To be fair, the vast majority of the cast were new to the RSC and many were relatively early in their professional careers. This will always be the downfall of Romeo and Juliet- casting actors who are simply not strong enough for the demanding material. Anneika Rose was particularly awful as Juliet: frankly, I felt sorry for her. From the boring (she spent a ridiculous amount of time acting while sitting on a bed, including the balcony scene) to the appalling (even a little amount of distress at seeing your husband dead?!), her scenes simply never worked. David Dawson as Romeo was a little better, but the balcony scene, staged with just a bed centrestage and therefore putting all focus on the performances, was slow, long and entirely without feeling. This was Shakespeare just spoken (and spoken not well), not performed.

The comic scenes were almost entirely without humour, despite the efforts of Owain Arthur's Peter. The play's length was in part occasioned by the retaining of even minor moments such as Peter's conversation with the musicians - here, with no discernable purpose or merit. I had more time for Gyuri Sarossy's Mercutio who, while not doing anything hugely interesting or memorable with the role, at least brought some welcome energy to the production, sorely lacking elsewhere.

Even the fight scenes were poorly realised. Director Neil Bartlett used some self-consciously dramatic devices which not only had no impact, but worked against the action by interrupting it and reducing the pace to a crawl. The play opened with the cast assembling and looking pointedly around at the audience (are we meant to identify or feel responsible for this mafia-like world of rich kids, nobles and cantankerous patriarchs? A device better reserved for a socially-deprived setting), before beginning the fight. Bartlett used a stop-start approach which saw the action repeatedly frozen while bits of dialogue were performed, before the physical action was restarted. Any sense of momentum was repeatedly arrested, making this introductory scene far too long and dull to be of any interest. Another device used frequently during the first half of the play saw members of the cast click their fingers at the ceiling to change lights and begin new scenes, which demonstrated little other than that Bartlett had seen The Glass Menagerie. Happily, most of these devices were forgotten during the course of the play, which was welcome and also flagged up the irrelevance of their earlier inclusion.

Even among smaller parts, the acting was repeatedly disappointing. Ben Ashton's Paris, upon being confronted with his 'dead' bride-to-be, exhibited..... mild irritation. Eva Magyar's Lady Capulet went for full histrionics, while Julie Legrand's Nurse, best described as a cross between Dot Cotton and Lily Savage, grated rather than amused. Mark Holgate at least conjured up a visage of Italianate menace as Tybalt, but the less said about James G. Bellorini's bumbling Friar John and Craig Ritchie's wooden Apothecary the better. Even James Clyde, the actor with the wonderful voice who was the towering highlight of Bartlett's Twelfth Night, overacted wildly as Friar Laurence, as if he was Mercutio doing the Queen Mab speech.

I'm aware that this is an ungenerous and rather forceful review, and I feel slightly bad as I write it. I'm sure that many of those involved had worked hard, even if that work didn't translate to my audience experience on the night. At the same time, though, I feel it's crucially important that the RSC not produce work of this sub-amateur standard. Northern Broadsides and Shakespeare's Globe have both produced Romeos this year that, while far from perfect, at least brought energy and freshness to one of the most recognisable plays on the English stage. This production added nothing to the play for those of us familiar with it, and did little to recommend itself to first-timers. We were sat among a group of schoolkids who spent most of the production texting, chatting among themselves and generally ignoring the play, and I couldn't blame them one bit; if this play had been my introduction to Shakespeare as a teenager, I can't imagine I would have bothered again. If the RSC wants to reach out and change the face of Shakespeare eduction, it needs to have good productions at the heart of its strategy, or the good work of its outreach will be undone.

December 04, 2008

The Brothers Size @ Birmingham Repertory Theatre

Writing about web page

Tarell Alvin McCraney recently received the Evening Standard's Most Promising Playwright award for two of his recent plays, The Brothers Size and In The Red and Brown Water. He also happens to be the new RSC/Warwick International Playwright in Residence, and ever since a searing intimate reading at Warwick I've been waiting to catch the former of the two plays, the first of his "Brother/Sister" trilogy. On tour, including successful runs in London, the play has built up a substantial reputation, and last night I finally caught it at the Door, Birmingham Rep's studio space.

Drawing on Nigerian myth, specifically the Yoruba cosmology, McCraney's play centres around the titular two brothers: Ogun, a mechanic, and Oshoosi, recently released from prison. A third man, Elegba, was in prison with Oshoosi, where the two of them developed a bond. The play deals at its heart with concepts of freedom, entrapment and family, with the characters trapped in various ways by restrictions both actual (Oshoosi's probation) or metaphorical (the bonds of brotherhood dragging each other down while simultaneously supporting each other).

Oshoosi's freedom from prison sees him experimenting with different kinds of liberation. At the heart of the play is his longing for a car, to allow him to be physically free of the little house and garage of his brother. It is Elegba who provides him with a car, but Elegba's friendship comes with suggestions of homoeroticism made explicit when the car stops on a dark road. Elegba's attachment to Oshoosi is here a destructive one; the price of sexual freedom comes at the cost of physical freedom, as Elegba plans to return them to prison by planting cocaine in the car. Ultimately, it is Ogun who is forced to make the decision to send Oshoosi away, severing their attachment in order that Oshoosi can hang onto his physical freedom.

McCraney's writing was wonderful, written in a rhythmic Louisianan dialect that required some tuning-in to, but perfectly captured the poetry in the mundane. The actors, all British, affected the accents impeccably and made the play vital and alive. In particular, the chemistry between Daniel Francis as Ogun and Tunji Kasim as Oshoosi was electric. The combination of love, hate, frustration, fear and oppression that ran through their scenes made their relationship complex and utterly believable, realising the inescapable pain that can define brotherhood, but also the overpowering desire - nay, need - to overcome that pain. In particular, a scene in which Francis turned on his brother, attacking him for burdening him with the shame and pain of all his brother's misdeeds, was extraordinarily powerful.

The play began with a simple chalk circle being drawn on the floor to create a playing space, and red chalk (the 'fertaile soil of Louisiana') scattered over. The play's intense physicality saw the three men increasingly covered in the sweat and dirt of their homeland as they rolled and pulled each other during transitional moments. A repeated visual motif, that of Oshoosi being pulled between the two others, was expanded on during dream sequences; the standout being Ogun's vision of Oshoosi and Elegba trying desperately to detach hands, and Elegba suddenly switching, refusing to let go and dragging Oshoosi away. Anthony Welsh was compelling as Elegba, a threat - not because of his sexuality, but for his challenge to the bonds of brotherhood. In a confrontation with Ogun, he accused the elder brother of not being there for the younger in prison, and placed himself as the superior 'brother' - he had not 'disappointed' Oshoosi yet. Ogun's final decision to send Oshoosi away sacrificed his own brotherly bond in order to forestall the consolidation of any bond with this new brother, sexual or no; for brotherly bonds are, in this world, more inescapable than prison bars.

Happily, the play was punctuated with a great deal of humour: not only the bickering and comic colloquialisms of the brothers, but also in a hugely enjoyable set piece as Ogun and Oshoosi rid themselves of their cares by singing along to Otis Redding's Try a Little Tenderness. The play did not seek to attack brotherhood, but to expose it for better and for worse. Laughing through tears and crying while smiling, the emotions realised on stage were heartfelt and powerful. McCraney's awards and critical attention have been fully deserved, and this production created a theatrical experience of surprising intimacy and warmth, while also challenging the most fundamental relationships and impulses in life. I look forward to the next two parts of the trilogy.

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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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