All entries for December 2009

December 20, 2009

Review of the Year

Rather than do a 'Top Ten' this year, I thought I'd be less reductive and do a month-by-month breakdown of my year's early modern theatre-going. It's been an interesting year, with some real ups and downs and productions which I still feel conflicted about. Still, here goes!


Propeller's The Merchant of Venice at Liverpool Playhouse started the year on a fantastic note. Elaborate re-settings can be either curse or blessing on a production, but here the relocation to an all-male prison which turned the play into a story of masculine power struggles, illicit bribes and sexual cruelty worked wonderfully well.


Production of the month was the Tobacco Factory's Julius Caesar, which used its intimate space to turn the play into one of subterfuge, shadow-games and boardroom politics. The Donmar's Twelfth Night was a classic production in the worst sense: entirely obvious and with no real creative spark or interest for me, despite solid performances. Less dull was the Baxter Theatre/RSC The Tempest, a lively and colourful piece of theatre though still surprisingly conventional. More interesting were Propeller's A Midsummer Night's Dream, an utterly magical evening, and the RSC's touring Othello. With the focus too solidly on one (okay) central performance, the production remained unbalanced but with occasional flashes of imaginative brilliance.


My personal highlight in March was the chance to see the boys of King Edward VI School in Stratford perform two rarely-played pieces: Lyly's Endymion and Middleton's A Mad World, My Masters, both entertaining, hugely enlightening and a real pleasure. It was a good month for non-Shakespeare, with Marlowe's Dido, Queen of Carthage getting a long-overdue airing at the National. Solid, if a little dull, but strong central performances justified the production. WUDS took Much Ado about Nothingto the Belgrade, while the first As You Like It I've ever enjoyed allowed me to see Leicester's new Curve. With an immigration agenda, Dash Arts found beauty and intelligence in the play that created a thoroughly fascinating production. Finally, the Royal Exchange's no-holds-barred Macbeth forced its audience to confront a barrage of brutal imagery, to great effect.


Back to the Tobacco Factory for Antony and Cleopatra, a fine and well-performed reading of the play. When considered in conjunction with February's Julius Caesar, though, the two productions became parts one and two of a larger-scale piece that dramatically altered the focus of the story around Octavius and Antony. Northern Broadsides toured a high-profile Othello which was, in places, extremely good, and the CAPITAL Centre indulged in a bit of grave-robbing by resurrecting an early 20th century version of Hamlet.


Television brought us Compulsion, a reworking of The Changeling which was an interesting watch, and it was a good month for student theatre with an academic re-imagining of themes surrounding The Tempest and an enthralling 'Tis Pity She's a Whore at Warwick Arts Centre. The RSC's new season kicked off with a good Winter's Tale, design-heavy and with several strong performances,and a less good As You Like It which I found smug, artificial and not particularly funny, despite a stunning Oliver Martext. Both featured the new long-term ensemble, giving some sense of what to expect over the next three years. Shakespeare's Globe started their year with a surprisingly decent Romeo and Juliet: I didn't like the Juliet, but a strong Mercutio and some good fight scenes left me entertained.


WUDS continued an early-modern-heavy year with A Midsummer Night's Dream, a heavily-directed and physical piece, full of energy. The best production of the year was at the National, with All's Well that Ends Well re-imagined as a fairy tale. With stellar performances, intelligent chopping and, among other things, a Parolles that allowed the character sympathy as well as mockery, this was one I would have happily revisited several times. Shakespeare's Globe produced the best As You Like It I've ever seen: genuinely funny, moving and engaging. The Bridge Project's The Winter's Tale completed my London excursions with a play of two halves: a wonderful Leontes and compelling Sicily scenes matched by a pretty silly and not very lively second half, though still a great production overall. In Stratford, Julius Caesar didn't turn out as well, with an over-fussy design and too many ideas- though several of those were great.


Hamlet in the West End was the celebrity performance of the year, with Jude Law excelling in the title role, though weakly supported by a production that just didn't push itself, and featured the horrendous sight of understudies trooping on stage and standing in lines when court scenes needed extras. The RSC's Comedy of Errors, meanwhile, was their best of the year: I've never seen a cast appear to have such a good time, and I hope the kids on the school tour loved it.


Just one, in a quiet summer. Troilus and Cressida at Shakespeare's Globe was an overall triumph, with a couple of reservations. A strong ensemble company brought the play to life, and Laura Pyper's Cressida was, to my mind, one of the most important performances of the year.


was my month off!


I'm not quite sure how I managed to have such a quiet Autumn, but a chance to see All's Well that Ends Well on screen via the National's NT Live Project was welcome. It's still nowhere near as good as seeing it in the flesh, but this screening persuaded me that there is some merit to seeing the play up-close: subtleties, particularly in the character of Parolles, came across very well.


A children's version of The Tempest, designed with the hard-of-hearing in mind, made sign language a beautiful part of a physical performance. It's a difficult one to judge, but I found it entertaining enough. At the complete opposite end of the spectrum was Toneelgroep Amsterdam's marathon Roman Tragedies, grouping together Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra into a six-hour promenade performance in Dutch. A near-indescribable event, with invigorating performances, incisive commentary on the mediation of news and history, and a set-up that allowed me to eat, drink and check my e-mails while watching theatre, which is an approach I would heartily encourage as many theatres as possible to embrace. The RSC's Twelfth Night featured a ludicrously obscure setting (Byronic Albania?!) but was a hugely enjoyable night out, with good comic performances. It was slight, though, compared to the improved Days of Significance which toured the country. Still with plenty of intelligent things to say about both Much Ado about Nothing AND UK foreign policy, it remained as powerful a piece of theatre as when I first saw it two years ago.


Aside from Warwick's Shakespeare Society giving a low-key All's Well that Ends Well, there was only one production this month, but a good 'un. Two Gents Productions gave a township-influenced The Two Gentlemen of Verona; or, Vakomana Vaviri ve Zimbabwe which remade the play in its own image. Very, very funny, but ending on a dark note of pain and humiliation that resounded far more powerfully than any other image I've seen in the theatre this year. It's a great way to end 2009, and I can only hope that the coming months bring more moments like it.

December 13, 2009

Two Gentlemen of Verona; or, Vakomana Vaviri ve Zimbabwe (Two Gents Productions) @ North Wall Oxford

Writing about web page

Two Gents Productions are a three-man company made up of performers Denton Chikura and Tonderai Munyevu, and director Arne Pohlmeier. As their name suggests, the company was founded as a result of the trio's work on their devised production of Two Gentlemen of Verona, retitled Vakomana Vaviri ve Zimbabwe. While the company have since begun producing other work, 2009 saw their profile enormously raised with an extensive UK and international tour of their debut production, which played to full and enthusiastic houses around the world.

In "township" style, this two-man show was disarmingly informal. Forgotten lines or scenes that the actors claimed to be bored with were jettisoned, the action was frequently paused in order to check that the audience were keeping up (with an implied rebuke to the mother behind me who kept up a running commentary throughout for her two children), and at one point Chikura asked the lighting technician to fetch him a Coke.

This informality of approach was apparent from the start, as the actors strolled out on stage as themselves bearing a large trunk, welcomed the audience and introduced the play. In the intimate but still formally arranged surroundings of the North Wall, the audience at first struggled to interpret how to respond: an opening round of applause was greeted with a bemused bow by the performers, and the audience laughed politely at the jokes while shying away from the moments of suggest interaction. It was testament to the skill of the performers at handling their medium that the barriers between performers and audience were quickly broken down, however, to the extent that the actors occasionally had to good-humouredly tell audience members not to improvise their own lines.

A Prologue riffing on Romeo and Juliet established that "In fair Zimbabwe we lay our scene", although the production may more properly have been said to be set everywhere and nowhere. From a trunk, the performers pulled out a range of props and pieces of costume which were hung on a washing line at the back of the stage. While African culture, such as the use of a sanza for musical accompaniment, was visible throughout, any sense of a "real" location was suggestive only; the transparency of the storytelling techniques employed ensured that the co-existing realities of performers and characters were in continual dialogue with one another. We were to invest in Chikura and Munyevu, rather than Valentine or Proteus.

The production depended on a variety of items and objects to enable the multiple transformations of place and character which the two actors underwent. Thus, the underside of the trunk was slammed in order to formally end scenes, and single items of costume represented characters: braces for Valentine, an upturned collar for Proteus, a ripped arm-length glove for Silvia, a sarong for Julia, and so on. These items were donned with some ceremony, with Julia's self-indulgent sigh of pleasure in her appearance as the sarong was donned becoming something of a running joke. The ability of the actors to transform themselves was incredibly effective in its simplicity: as Munyevu became Sylvia, his voice rose a register and became softer; a benevolent smile flickered upon his face; and his focus softened, giving the character a dreamy aura. As Proteus, his shoulders hunched, his stance and voice hardened and his eyes looked piercingly at Valentine. While we were always aware first and foremost of the actors as themselves, the subtleties of expression and gait allowed the characters to be effectively differentiated, the audience following the shifts even when characters passed from one actor to another: thus, as Munyevu removed Silvia's glove and passed it to Chikura, so too were Sylvia's distinctive mannerisms and tics adapted by Chikura, the audience following the character along with the physical indicator of their presence. This was used to great comic effect in Julia's disguise as Sebastian, with multiple items of costume layered on each other; and even more complicatedly as Speed explained Silvia's letter-writing conceit to a befuddled Valentine. Realising that neither Valentine nor the audience had any idea what he was talking about, Speed "stopped" the play, and proceeded to re-perform Valentine and Silvia himself, while reminding the audience "I'm still Speed, by the way", explaining the action through a series of performances concealed within his own performance.

The objects that represented characters came to bear remarkable resonance in their own right. At times when more than two characters were required, the actors would often give props to members of the audience, casting them in that role and then directing the action towards them, most entertainingly at one point when the swaggering Turio's jacket was gifted to one gentlemen who was then subjected to an energetic tirade from Valentine. The objects gradually began to take on a life that existed independently of their animation; thus, in one fight scene, the fight was conducted as a comic beating up of a piece of clothing, while the other actor responded remotely to the pain at the other side of the stage. More interestingly, in the final act, Silvia and Juila were often no more than their empty objects, lying on stage as Valentine and Proteus fought over them. The objectification of the women in their discourse was thus literally figured on the stage, the women becoming wordless prizes unable to defend or speak for themselves.

The comedy of the production often came from unexpected places. Lance and Crab, here even more irrelevant to the main plot than usual, were relatively static, Chikura's Lance simply holding a leash and collar attached to Munyevu, who stood with arms folded and tongue panting. Lance responded to being shown up by tightening the leash gradually until Crab's eyes bulged. In their subsequent scene, Crab sat moodily at the edge of the stage, staring fixedly into the distance with chin on fist. Lance's speeches were themselves spoken straight, though with audience members asked to provide the shoes representing his parents. The comedy here came more from the subversion of expectations of farce, with the moody Crab surprisingly captivating in his human sulk. Elsewhere, the comedy was more obvious; Julia and Lucetta's scene took place in an imagined bathroom, with both actors miming the concealment of Julia's modesty, and Lucetta herself was made up of comically exaggerated mannerisms and affectations that spoke of the servant's irreverent attitude towards her mistress.

In a nice touch, Julia's overhearing of Proteus's wooing of Silvia was recast as a visit to a witch doctor, who "conjured" an image of Proteus. The two actors then leaped onto a platform to perform as Turio and Proteus, before jumping back to ground level to speak as Julia and the witch doctor. Chikura's comic songs as both Valentine and Turio, consisting usually of the words "Silvia, Silvia, Silvia" sung repeatedly or of pastiches of more recent songs (notably Valentine's lamenting rendition of "Lonely, I am so lonely"), were highlights, and countered nicely by the tuneful melodies of Proteus. Most of the comedy came from the actors as themselves, whether Chikura forgetting his lines as the Duke on the news of Valentine's love for Silvia and instead improvising deliberately mundane dialogue ("Oh no. I am shocked"), or the apology for use of the word "codpiece" in front of the young children in the third row and Chikura's explanation that "It's a fish". Most impressive was a bravura piece of physical comedy in the depiction of the banditti, in which three members of the audience were dragged on stage and treated as human puppets, the actors waving their victims' arms around in increasingly expressive movements to match their ventriloquised dialogue, while the puppets themselves creased up with laughter.

All this comedy served to underscore a rather more serious undertone. Proteus and Valentine were barely friendly even in their opening scene, displaying clear resentment of each other's choices; already, these were friends who had grown apart. Valentine's welcome of Proteus to court was cold and stand-offish, while Proteus's arrogant demeanour suggested open animosity. As Proteus worked his plans against Valentine, he took increasing glee in their success. In the forest, however, all pretences were dropped. His attempted rape of Silvia was exactly that. Munyevu threw Chikura's Silvia to the ground and advanced threatening on her as she cowered, slowly but deliberately forcing her legs apart and lowering himself. At this point, and with no laughter, Chikura removed the glove, left it at Munyevu's feet and made his way to the other side of the stage to 'appear' as Valentine, interrupting the rape. Valentine's anger at Proteus was manifest, and their reaffirmation of friendship was anything but; the offer of Silvia was made with deep sarcasm and loathing, a furious and scathing damnation of Proteus's actions; and Proteus's acceptance of Julia shortly thereafter was a shamefaced step-down on Proteus's part, the only way out of the predicament into which he had put himself.

Throughout this, the women lay on the floor as objects; yet after the Duke's closing words, the play had its final trick to play. The actors resumed the sarong and glove of Julia and Silvia, and the latter was discovered, weeping and bruised on the floor. Julia moved to her, took her head in her lap and began comforting her, the lights (which had been set to a single state throughout) fading on their embrace of solidarity. The sobriety and theatricality of this final moment, in contrast to the transparency and good humour elsewhere in the production, ended the play on a deadening note of condemnation of both Valentine and Proteus, human kindness forgotten in their selfish and myopic actions. It was perhaps not the comic conclusion we might have expected, but one which fitted the community-rooted motivations behind this production. Laughter gave way to a severe reading of the play that was all the more effective for the irreverence and mockery of what had come before. An entertaining and expertly-performed production, that achieved more with a shoe-string budget than most established companies.

This review originally appeared at Shakespeare Revue.

December 05, 2009

Shakespeare and Co. in 2010

Here's the so-far full list of Shakespeare and other Early Modernists I'm aware of for 2010. Almost certainly there are omissions, and if anyone has any tips of anything else relevant coming up in the new year, I'll be happy to add it to the list (Duncan, I'm looking at you, but anyone else as well!).

Antony and Cleopatra (RSC)

Antony and Cleopatra (Nuffield, Southampton)

Arden of Faversham (Theatr Clwyd)

As You Like It (Bridge Project)

Comedy of Errors (Royal Exchange)

Comedy of Errors (Globe Touring)

Hamlet (National)

Hamlet (RSC Youth Ensemble)

Hamlet (Sheffield Crucible)

1 Henry IV (Globe)

2 Henry IV (Globe)

Henry VIII (Globe)

King John (Platform 4, tbc)

King Lear (RSC)

Macbeth (Globe)

Macbeth (Cheek by Jowl)

Measure for Measure (Almeida)

The Merchant of Venice (Theatre Royal, Bury St. Edmunds)

The Merry Wives of Windsor (Globe)

A Midsummer Night's Dream (Tobacco Factory)

A Midsummer Night's Dream (Rose)

A Midsummer Night's Dream (Globe Touring)

Romeo and Juliet (Mercury Colchester)

Romeo and Juliet (RSC)

Juliet and Her Romeo (Bristol Old Vic)

Romeo and Juliet (Tiny Ninja)

The Tempest (Curve)

The Tempest (Tobacco Factory)

The Tempest (Bridge Project)

Twelfth Night (Filter)

Twelfth Night (National)

Women Beware Women (National)

A Yorkshire Tragedy (Tough Theatre)

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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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