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May 24, 2012
It is not unusual to note that, when adapting classical English texts that particularly deal with class systems and social hierarchies, from Shakespeare to Austen, the Indian caste system lends itself particularly well to direct translation. In Sunil Shanbab's Globe to Globe production of All’s Well that Ends Well, the transgressive nature of Heli’s (Mansi Parkeh) pursuit of Bharatram (Chirag Vora) was made explicit early on as Satchit Puranik’s Parbat (the Parolles figure) cut off his gentle mocking of Heli, squared up to her and told her, coldly, that she should give up her hopes of pursuing him.
This was a moment of rare darkness in a production that treated All’s Well as a straight comedy, with the obstacles merely delays that proved Heli’s worth to Bharatram. With a heavily cut second half (Lavatch, the Brothers Dumaine and the entire kidnap plot were omitted), the focus was squarely on Heli and Bharatram, and their journey to eventual – hopeful – happiness.
The humour of the Gujarati text was apparent from the constant laughter of a substantially fluent audience; yet one didn’t need the detail of the jokes to appreciate the matriarchal confidence of Meenal Patel’s Kunti (the Countess), the feigned innocence of Puranik’s beared Parbat, or the affable interactivity of Archan Trivedi’s Laffabhai (Lafew). Laffabhai assumed the role of Chorus or Narrator, spending much of the play downstage dancing and singing to introduce the narrative to the audience. Fitting his role within the play, he introduced characters to characters and actors to audience, generating connection and enabling play. He also set the musical tone, accompanied by three onstage musicians. As one might expect from this culture, songs made up a substantial proportion of the performance. Often these were simply amusing, such as Bharatram and Parbat’s paeon to Bombay upon their arrival. Others, however, were deeply moving. Parekh’s frequent solos, used to expound on her love for Bharatram or retell her story to Nishi Doshi’s Alkini (Diana), were beautiful, often holding notes for an achingly long time as the character began to shed tears, and were always followed by extended applause.
The revelation, though, was Utkarsh Mazumdar’s hilarious and moving turn as Gokuldas Sawaram Bhatia, substituting for the King of France. The old man was introduced to us with a certain dignity, his quiet introductory song broken by the disturbingly realistic coughs of late-stage tuberculosis. Yet once seated and accompanied by his servant Pandurang (Ajay Jairam, in an original role drawing on Indian stage traditions of foolery), his affability and good humour won the crowd over. Whether demanding to be taken offstage for a pee, or grumbling openly at the ineffectiveness of English doctors, the open nature of the character and his willingness to overthrow convention were thoroughly entertaining. In a scene that generated an extraordinary energy among the audience, Heli cured him over fifteen days that took thirty seconds, she feeding him pills while Pandurang assisted him in walking in circles around his throne. When Pandurang finally let him go and the frail old man did an elegant bend at the knees, the crowd roared its approval.
Heli’s costume changes throughout drew some of the biggest reactions, particularly when she was sent offstage while Gokuldas enforced his marriage order on Bharatram. The decision to remove her from earshot while Bharatram rejected the marriage before the King was interesting, allowing her – when she returned to spontaneous applause in a fabulous wedding sari – to engage in the marriage entirely happily, even while he and Parbat shared troubled looks.
Parbat’s role was heavily cut, with the relationship between him and Laffabhai only hinted at. Kunti’s role was also much shorter than that of Shakespeare’s Countess, but Patel made the most of her appearances, particularly in the careful teasing of Heli that made her surprising embrace, as she revealed her approval of Heli’s love, all the more touching. The combination of humour and affection throughout worked particularly well, even in the minor role of Pandurang, who showed empathy for his suffering master even as he teased him.
Set in 1900, a colonial narrative underpinned the play without dominating. The war context was stripped away and, in its place, Gokuldas (a trader rather than a king) sent Bharatram and Parbat, wearing suit jackets over their traditional robes, to Rangoon on a trade mission. Negotiating with Alkini, Parbat informed her that the British had cut off her opium trade, forcing her into a position of trading with Gokuldas, and thus coercing her to agree to sleeping with Bharatram. Yet this undercurrent of constriction was downplayed in favour of Bharatram’s tentative attempts to woo Alkini, and the sisterly camaraderie between Alkini and Heli as they swapped places halfway through the bed-trick scene.
The stories of female bonding running throughout the narrative came out powerfully. Heli, revealed already staying at Alkini's after the shift to Rangoon, confessed all to her new friend, her song interspersed with dance that saw the two of them circle each other and swing each other by the arms. Similarly, her warm relationship with Kunti found physical expression in embraces all the more marked for the relative lack of physical contact elsewhere. Moments of reunification, intimacy and forgiveness relied on a sense of physical proximity; the bed-trick scene was played tenderly, Bharatram seating the disguised Heli gently on the bed and beginning to caress her, and their later open reunion involved him placing a ring once more on her fingers, the two finally sharing a moment of mutual, aware closeness.
The simply played reunification scene allowed for the possibility of investing in the pair’s love, with Bharatram seen slowly realising what Heli had been through for him and turning to see her in, apparently, an entirely fresh light. As the audience joined in applauding a wedding song and dance, for once it did seem that all really may have been well.
May 15, 2011
Writing about web page http://www.shakespearesglobe.com/theatre/on-stage/alls-well-that-ends-well
It was a good weekend for obscure Shakespeare in London. In between a version of the first quarto Hamlet and a rare revival of 1 Henry VI, I found time to get to the Globe, bravely leading off its main summer season with its first ever production of the little-loved All's Well that Ends Well. It was also a rare evening Globe outing for me, complete with sporadic rain and chill winds. Happily, the production was strong enough that nature failed to dint enjoyment.
In an opening of unusual informality, cast members emerged to chat casually with the groundlings and welcome us to the performance. James Garnon set the comic tone with a comic mock-French series of announcements. "La telefone portable? Non!" and the production opened with the audience already in high spirits. There was an emphasis throughout on keeping the audience laughing wherever possible, which perhaps backfired in more serious scenes; the laughter was kept up throughout Bertram's refusal of Helena, for example, at the expense of the emotional impact of the exchange on both characters.
That said, the strength of John Dove's production (which reunited much of the cast of last year's Henry VIII) was its thoroughgoing good humour. This was particularly stressed in two key performances: Garnon's Parolles and Michael Bertenshaw's Lafeu. Garnon was the consummate braggart in plumed hat and spurs, with a confident bluster that endeared him instantly to the audience. Cleverly, however, he let slip enough honest feeling to prevent the character becoming a caricature, particularly as he wished Helena to a good husband, stumbling over his words. This Parolles used bluster as a way of concealing his basic nerviness, which manifested in the disputes with Lafeu and was given full vent when blindfolded and rattling off the movements of his own army. Yet the laughter finally stopped as the blindfold was removed and he was left, bitter and self-loathing, on the stage.
Bertenshaw, meanwhile, gave a tremendously splenetic performance as Lafeu, railing and stomping about the stage. This hardy old man posed a physical threat to Parolles through sheer vigour, and even his more stale jokes had impact thanks to the heartiness of their delivery. The back-and-forth between the two men was entirely controlled by Lafeu, who moved in a heartbeat from teasing to forceful anger while Parolles attempted to build confidence and was ultimately quashed. Their final reunion was surprisingly tender, as Parolles gratefully cowered before his new master.
The period production was relatively formal, with a brass ensemble lending itself to the ceremonial and militaristic atmosphere. Unusually for the Globe, large shutters with painted scenes were used throughout to indicate changes of location and time of day, which were beautiful and helpful but seemed very out of place behind a bare stage. The formality of the set-up, though, was balanced by Sam Cox's gruff, moody King of France, who scowled and grumbled whether hobbling on a cane, in a wheelchair or striding after his cure. This King was not a listener, and his offer of husbands for the ecstatic Diana was comic in its belligerence. Cox was most impressive, though, in his fearsome condemnation of Bertram, both at the betrothal and during his later arraignment, where the authority of a King unaccustomed to disobedience came to the fore.
Ellie Piercy and Sam Crane made for an extremely interesting lead couple. Helena is a relatively wet character, but Piercy gave her some gusto by making the most of her banter with Parolles and her control of the betrothal scene. Standing centrally, she called forth her prospective partners one at a time and dismissed them easily. Bertram, meanwhile, was a petulant child, with head permanently tilted upwards in a display of arrogance. This continued into the court scenes, to the annoyance of the King. His refusal of Helena was left pleasingly ambiguous, but was clearly related to the public nature of the scene - his appeal was to his audience, not to her. Yet in their parting scene, Bertram was already showing ambivalence about his choice. His admiration for his new wife's loyalty left him gazing quietly at her, and he gave her a long and affectionate kiss, after which he stood and watched her depart in confusion. It was Parolles who galvanised him to leave for the wars.
Bertram's disquiet throughout extended to his awkward conversations with Diana (Naomi Cranston), who had a self-possession and upright dignity that reduced him to fumbling and nervous hand-wringing. She was accompanied in her early appearances by Mary Doherty and Sophie Duval as Mariana and the Widow, who made up a fearsome double-act that shouted enthusiastic praise after the army and threatened the exhausted Parolles with vehemence. These bolshy women enacted merciless judgement on men, and the Widow remained unafraid to tell Helena what she really thought of their trekking. Diana showed some girlish excitement at the approach of the troops, but held herself calm when in Bertram's and the King's presence, throwing into contrast the relatively emotional inconsistencies of the men.
The second half was weaker than the first, a fault of the play rather than the production - the absence of the bed-trick is difficult to negotiate on-stage, and it was difficult to be sure exactly what had happened and when, until the final reckoning. Bertram held the stage well, though, displaying suitable concern over the news of Helena's death. His reaction to her unobtrusive entrance into the court at the end, however, was moving - he fell to his knees before her and embraced her in love and relief. She knelt to be with him; there was no ambivalence over the importance of this reunion, just satisfaction that the problems of two lovers had been resolved.
Elsewhere, Colin Hurley made for an Lavatch, a traditional Cockney servant whose jokes occasionally fell flat (the "Oh Lord Sir" section was a complete non-event), but who kept up the light-hearted feel. The Brothers Dumaine and the Interpreter were wonderful in delivering their made-up foreign language and motioning to each other in jest while Parolles was in captivity, and the struggles of the various lords to prevent each other from lynching the unsuspecting fool were entertaining. I was surprised, too, at how many lines translated into good, pure jokes: Lafeu's attempt to accept Parolles was instantly undone as Parolles entered and Lafeu spontaneously burst out with "Who's his tailor?!", and the King's dismissal of Diana with "I do not like her now" was met with roars from the theatre.
This strong production made a great case for the play's effectiveness on the modern stage, and acted as a good compliment to the National's very different but equally entertaining version. It's a production, too, that will get better as the company continue to build on the conviviality and connections to the crowd. A great start to the Globe's year.
October 02, 2009
Writing about web page http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/?lid=52899
Nicholas Hytner, in an interview with Alex Jennings that preceded the National Theatre's second NT Live broadcast, qualified the expectations for this experimental programme in a way which chimed more with my own expectations. The broadcast of Phedre back in June was preceded by rather hyperbolic and over-ambitious suggestions that the event would recreate a theatrical experience; that the cameras would not interfere with the audience's experience; and that the 'product' received around the world would be of a comparable quality to that experienced in London.
This time around, Hytner expressed himself rather better. The initial experiment, he suggested, had seen them create something that was not quite theatre, not quite cinema, but a new generic form altogether, and it was this that they wished to explore further. It's a commendable admission. The live broadcast is always going to be technically inferior to a studio-shot production that can take full advantages of a screen medium; while in terms of a live event, one can never hope to give the spectators the control over their own viewing experience that the theatre audience enjoys, or re-create the atmosphere of a live show. However, by deliberately aiming for something different, the experiment is (in my eyes, at least) validated somewhat. The question becomes not whether the screened All's Well was as good as the live All's Well, but what this unique format offered on its own terms.
The framing materials were well chosen. I have an issue with the director and actor interviews that precede the screening, explaining their creative decisions and interpretations. It rather implies that the provincial and international audiences need a level of mediation that the live audiences in London do not, and I find it both patronising and reductive to be instructed how to interpret a production before I am allowed to see it. The opposing argument would be that the materials are similar to those that are in a programme, but the point is that one can choose whether or not to read a programme, while one cannot choose to absent oneself from the screened interviews.
That said, it was pleasing to see the National experiment with the medium to present items that are not available in any other format. Some archive footage showing the historical connections between Shakespeare and the National was genuinely informative and gave some interesting context to the occasion, but the best part was an 'in-the-wings' conversation between director Marianne Elliott and actor Elliot Levey, in costume as Lord Dumaine. Instead of explaining the production, this short, sweet interview gave a palpable sense of excitement to the occasion, with Levey explaining the excitement that the cast felt at their final performance and the screening. Paradoxically, the cameras allowed a greater sense of intimacy in this moment than the live experience.
However, the good work of the framing material was distressingly undone by the criminally unwise idea of a mid-show talk. Returning after a 20 minute interval, Jennings was now on the Olivier stage, this time with designer Rae Smith, who he interviewed for ten minutes about the production's design. This interruption to the evening's proceedings was extremely unwelcome, killing the momentum of the production far more damagingly than an interval does and asking too much of the audience in adjusting their mindset. This was made worse by the fact that Smith deliberately tried to avoid saying anything that would give away the events of the second half, and was thus prevented from giving an interestingly complete picture of her work - which begged the question, why attempt to do an interview halfway through at all, if the timing means that a decent interview can't be achieved?
The screening itself went extremely well. The scale of the Olivier stage and auditorium allowed for the cameras to be extremely mobile and wide-ranging, creating a sense of space and three-dimensional activity that the rather more static Phedre had not been able to convey. While there were still frustrations in the choice of camera angles, particularly when a character in close-up reacted to something that was out of view, the cameras were extremely effective in picking out details that had certainly not registered as strongly when I saw the production in person.
Chief among the beneficiaries was Conleth Hill, whose larger than life Parolles was born for the big screen. In close-up, Parolles came dangerously close to stealing the entire show. Hill filled the screen with extravagent gestures and the continual ruffling up of his plumes and sleeves. In his first conversation with Michelle Terry's Helena, the camera gave us privileged access to his face; turning away at one point, his eyes lit up as he interpreted her "How might one do, sir, to lose it to her own liking?" as a come-on, and he quickly swept back his hair and checked his breath before turning back to her to lounge seductively (as he thought) across the bench they shared.
More importantly, however, the pathos of Hill's performance came across extremely effectively. Left alone in soliloquy after his 'discovery' by Lafew and his public humiliation, on both occasions his body slumped, crestfallen, and his eyes and mouth remained low even as, with his words, he tried to pick up his own spirits. There was something desperately sad about this man, whose entire personality was constructed around a performance of his own worth. With that performance stripped away, Hill allowed us to glimpse the vulnerability and insecurity that had driven him to become a braggart.
The testing by the Countess (Clare Higgins) of Helena also benefitted from the camera's close eye. Here, her play-acting was made wonderfully comic, as the camera cut to her hidden reactions of joy to the revelation of Helena's love for Bertram before turning back with a severe frown. All through the production, in fact, we gained in perceived insight into the character's 'true' faces. Bertram and Helena's first taking of hands, under the King's command, was tentative and terrified, Bertram's eyes widening with fear and discomfort as he felt the eyes of the court on him. Perhaps surprisingly, the wonderful performances of the two Counts Dumaine (Levey and Tony Jayawardena) were pushed even further into prominence, and a highlight was their simple conversation about the end of the war and Bertram's disgrace, intercut with Helena and Diana preparing their plot. This chat became an intimate and almost choric commentary on the morality of the play, delivered in an inocuous form that privileged the spectator as voyeur, rather than audience - as if we were accidentally privy to the unspoken concerns of Bertram's companions.
The medium failed to serve the production in creating the atmosphere of the live show. Back projections showing silhouettes of owls, wolves, withered trees and other fairytale markers were invisible during the main action, and instead were cut to quickly at the start of scenes in an effort to show the atmosphere rather than create it. In practice, this meant that the screen occasionally cut to what looked like a cartoon of woodland animals, which invariably just drew a laugh and then failed to impact on the subsequent scene. However, the cameras did effectively convey the size of the space, and their mobility was particularly well-utilised in establishing shots of the whole stage and slow pans across still scenes: the parade of the victorious soldiers, for example, lingered on each of the soldiers as they moved in slow-motion, finally resting on Bertram as he raised his plumes and celebrated his new honour.
The NT Live experiment worked as an excellent companion to a live viewing of All's Well that Ends Well. Where the live production drew the spectator to the spectacle and massed action, the broadcast picked out subtleties in the performances which allowed certain moments to become more moving, while also drawing out jokes that may have been lost on stage - in particular, Lafew's straight-to-camera asides worked far better on screen than at the edge of the Olivier stage where the direct address was rather overwhelmed by everything else. It shows the NT Live project moving in an encouraging direction, and hopefully future live Shakespeare broadcasts will learn from this screening's mistakes and build on its strengths.
June 10, 2009
The label of “problem play” has long been regarded as an unhelpful and negatively loaded description for those plays of Shakespeare’s which fit uncomfortably into neat genres, yet in the case of All’s Well That Ends Well, the label has stuck. Marianne Elliott’s new production for the National Theatre, however, made a virtue of the production’s problems by emphasising the play’s fairytale characteristics; after all, this is a story of trial and adversity, of journeys and miracle cures, of love transcending class boundaries and ultimate happy endings. In emphasising these facets of the play, Elliott’s production took one of Shakespeare’s least loved plays and turned it into a magical, fresh folk tale.
The set acted as an immediate declaration of the production’s intentions. Silhouettes of rickety gothic towers ascended towards the heavens, where a full moon and stormy clouds shone over a night sky covered in cobwebs, along which projected spiders scuttled. Narrow walkways snaked across jagged mountains, owls hooted and wolves howled. This black and white landscape acted as backdrop to the Rossillion home, a bleak and colourless household overwhelmed by mourning. Even on the move to the French court, only a long red carpet broke the stark colour scheme, and it was not until the action moved to Florence that the palette substantially changed. The effect was to set the events of the first act in a half-real, half-fictional world that allowed for magic and used clear intertextual references to shape its characters; Helena, for example, donned a red hooded travelling cloak that re-cast her as Red Riding Hood, with the wolves howling as she ended the first act heading off alone into the mountains as she abandoned France.
As an important part of the fairytale setting, Elliott laid particular emphasis on the play’s concern with class. Michelle Terry’s Helena was little more than a servant in the Rossillion household, indistinguishable at first from the other waiting women. Her only real friendship, surprisingly, was with Conleth Hill’s Parolles, with whom she shared a bond that saw the two exchanging bawdy jokes and laughing before Parolles left to accompany Bertram to Paris. By contrast, Helena was barely noticed by Bertram, he acknowledging her only in his final words before leaving. Establishing this early connection between Parolles and Helena allowed for a richer understanding of the motivations of both; she felt the class divide was unbridgeable, necessitating her convoluted schemes; while Parolles adopted an affected accent and ebullient manner in order to compensate for his own insecurity. Difficulties of class were further evoked through Rynaldo’s disgust at the Countess and Lavatch flirting openly in her chambers
Terry was a solid and likeable Helena, permanently downcast but made sympathetic by her determination to improve her standing. Occasionally her despair broke out, such as in a lonely scream before taking the decision to leave France. Her sadness was often extremely touching, notably in the French court when asked to choose her husband. The four presented to her – including a bookish chemist, an arrogant sportsman and a simpleton who gave her flowers – were eminently unsuitable and yet still disdainful of her, while Bertram laughed openly at the suggestion that he might marry her. In the fairytale context, the attitudes and prejudice she was forced to endure became obstacles to be overcome, allowing her to demonstrate her indomitability of spirit. As a heroine, Terry’s Helena was admirable for her resilience rather than her wit, and the dark, cold world into which Elliott plunged her emphasised this strength.
George Rainsford’s Bertram opened the production, childishly swinging a sword as he fought invisible enemies. His rudeness and inconsiderate nature were chalked down to age and social inexperience, rendering him somewhat more sympathetic than usual as a character. He was honest in saying what he did and did not want, and sullen at the grown-up world’s repeated refusal to allow him to follow his own path, throwing himself sulkily onto a couch as his fellows went off to war. The forced marriage in which he found himself was clearly unwelcome, and we watched in silhouette as he appeared waving at off-stage crowds with Helena before downing a glass of champagne in an attempt to console himself.
Bertram was thus one of the very few characters apparently immune to Helena’s magic. While convincing the King of her ability to cure him, the court dropped away into shadow and the two were bathed in coloured light, the mystical nature of her father’s arts being invoked in the persuasion as well as in the cure. Similarly, when returning to public view after her reported death, her entrance was accompanied by heavenly music and petals falling from the sky across the court. Helena was visually linked, therefore, to the supernatural and elemental, and it was in these moments where she appeared most confident. When dealing with the real world, however, she was far less so. The lead-up to the bed trick was staged, interspersed with 4.3 as the two Lords Dumaine spoke of the wars and the Count. Diana and Helena hung a white sheet across one side of the stage, and then changed into sexy kitten costumes, in which Helena was extremely awkward. As Diana blindfolded Bertram, Helena stepped forward and took her place, uncomfortable at reconciling her own tender feelings towards her husband with the kinky games Bertram was expecting. The lights went down, thus, on a troubled moment that problematised the moment of duplicitous seduction. These problems remained with the couple until the end; as a photographer took shots of various courtly groupings, Helena and Bertram shared uncomfortable and not entirely happy glances. Helena had orchestrated her fairytale ending, but married life would begin on a note of discord.
The colours of Florence provided a marked contrast to France. Janet Henfrey’s Widow was hostess of a bar, with neon signs and fairy lights giving the region a liveliness and colour previously lacking. The ladies of Florence, too, were dressed in Mediterranean frocks and chatted with a liveliness that contrasted nicely with the quiet Helena’s subdued arrival. Into this bar scene came the Florentine army in slow motion; drinking, celebrating, holding Bertram up on their shoulders and carrying off one of the young girls. This scene, introducing the second half of the play, set up a world more grounded in reality, forcing Helena to rely on more sordid tricks to achieve her ends, and allowing the focus to shift slightly towards the Parolles subplot. Hill was enormously entertaining as the cowardly soldier, although the background of class insecurity rendered his motives more understandable. Alone in 4.1, he muttered recriminations to himself for offering to retrieve the drum and ran at the sounds of hooting and howling; but yet, his seeming inability to control his own need for acceptance was at the same time touching.
The tricks played on Parolles were simply and effectively staged, the victim being sat downstage on a bench and blindfolded. However, the company brought out some nice individual moments, such as the Interpreter’s attempts to mimic a Russian accent after Parolles’ assertion that he had been caught by Muscovites, and the Brothers Dumaine attempting to restrain each other as the unknowing Parolles insulted each of them. While the increasingly panicked confessions of the blindfolded captive were amusing, however, the most effective part of the scene came after the blindfold was removed and his captors had left the stage. Left alone, Parolles reflected partly in shame on what had happened, but quickly shrugged it off. His cowardice exposed, he embraced the freedom of being who he truly was, abandoning his social ambitions. In his subsequent appearances, therefore, he was bedraggled and stinking, but all the happier for it. His final acceptance of a post under Lafew fed into this; where Parolles had been extremely awkward in the early exchanges of banter with Lafew, unable to pose effective counter-arguments, here both men eagerly accepted a genial relationship more fitting with their respective social stations. While the reinforcement of archaic class types is problematic, the neat moral which the production found in Parolles’ tale was a simple one of being happy with one’s own lot; a fitting reading for a fairytale production.
Brendan O’Hea’s excellent Lavatch was a severe clown, more a confidante for the Countess than an entertainer. His close relationship to the women of the house was repeatedly referenced, whether lounging on a chair with the Countess or standing shocked beside Helena as she received the news of Bertram’s departure. Clare Higgins, playing the Countess, was a strong yet emotional figure, increasingly conflicted between love for her son and digust at his behaviour. Yet she was an inherently playful figure, both with Lavatch and with Helena, who she particularly relished teasing as she drew from her a confession of love for Bertram. In this, she was paralleled by Oliver Ford Davies’ King of France, a similarly joking figure who used humour to ignore the pain of his illness. The relief brought to him by Helena, physically realised quickly as the two re-entered dancing after his cure, allowed the King to become a more active and emotionally involved character, particularly in the final scene as he grew increasingly frustrated with Diana’s enigmatic answers. Nonetheless, the King retained his humour and his final promise of a husband for Diana drew cries of despair from the courtiers, a response he had clearly hoped for. This final clash of playful comedy with the question mark over Helena and Bertram’s future encapsulated the production perfectly: a fairytale that fused magical comedy with the grounded complexities of real life. Elliott’s production was a triumph, and a powerful call for more frequent revival of a neglected play.
This review originally appeared at Shakespeare Revue .