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July 19, 2009

Hamlet (Donmar West End) @ Wyndham's Theatre

I booked to see the Donmar's major new Hamlet some eighteen months ago, taking an unusual step for me by paying top whack to get front row stalls seats. The idea was that this would be an end of year treat, a production I was going to purely for fun. That was back when Kenneth Branagh was still scheduled to direct, but his replacement with the ever-reliable Michael Grandage didn't faze me. The main attraction, despite my ongoing ambivalence towards star casting, was of course Jude Law in the title role and, as the artwork had implied from the start, this was a production built entirely around the Dane.

Hamlet publicity art
Hamlet publicity art

This was a dark Hamlet, in the literal sense. Christopher Oram's imposing set of stone walls allowed narrow shafts of light to fall from high window slits, but the stage itself was resolutely dark, and peopled with a cast almost entirely clad in black. As the play progressed variations were introduced: the players wore stark white in contrast, Ophelia and Gertrude donned pale greys and whites in their madness and repentance respectively, and Hamlet himself changed into a grey t-shirt. The overall colourlessness was held until the final scene, where slightly predictably a deep red curtain was used as a backdrop for the final duel and murders. Happily, the visual monotony was relieved by Neil Austin's spectacular lighting design, which used bright, carefully angled lights to suggest a world of lightness and freedom just beyond the barred doors of Elsinore.

Law's Hamlet was the first I've seen to resist the temptation to play up the humour of the role. While several of his scenes were hugely funny (notably his description of Polonius being at supper with the worms, played with a careless cruelty behind his smiles), the overriding impression was one of intensity. Sweat dripping off his face from the get-go, hands gesturing wildly and a taut, strained quality to his voice, this Hamlet was a fractured and troubled man, tightly wound and about ready to snap.

Dominating the production, Law's performance was never less than rivetting. His bottled-up energy found its outlet in moments of pure emotion, such as his scream at Guildenstern's attempts to play him like a pipe and his wordless grief at the realisation that Ophelia was dead, restrained by Horatio. In soliloquy he was a man torn apart, delivering "To be or not to be" while huddling himself in the midst of a snowfall, or directing "How all occasions do inform against me" internally, his disgust at his own inaction dawning on him as he spoke. Despite the production's occasional attempts to iconicise the performance (such as his first appearance, crouched on the floor in a spotlight in a picture-perfect moment), Law's strength was the humanity he brought to the role, bringing a touch of reality to over-familiar moments: holding Yorick's skull became a nostalgic gulp of a scene, a dizzying moment of childish remembrance that juxtaposed in his mind with the grief and heady action of the moment.

While Grandage drew a wonderful performance out of Law, however, the rest of the production failed to live up to it. As with the director's Twelfth Night, Hamlet suffered from a lack of invention in the staging and performances that rendered it somewhat flat. The one truly inventive decision was to play the closet scene in what was effectively reverse-angle: a transparent curtain fell from the ceiling a foot or so from the downstage edge, which Polonius hid in front of while Gertrude and Hamlet met behind. As Polonius was killed, he grabbed at the curtain and pulled it down over him, allowing Hamlet to wrap him in it. This proved a welcome diversion from the rather static staging of the rest of the play. Repeatedly, groups of nameless courtiers entered, moved to their appointed positions, stood still to watch the current scene and then left at its conclusion, effectively providing living scenery - considering the pioneering work being done around the country on ensemble playing, one would have hoped that a more interesting use for the understudies could have been found. As it was, the larger court scenes became artificially rigid.

The staging of smaller scenes was more interesting, but let down by uninspired performances. Alex Waldmann's whiny Laertes was a particular disappointment, seeming more exasperated than angry with Claudius on his return to Denmark. His reaction to Ophelia's death was badly misjudged: taking "Too much of water hast thou, poor Ophelia/ And therefore I forbid my tears" as his cue, he instead managed to display an attitude of not caring, shrugging off the news with an oh-well-what-can-you-do tone. Matt Ryan's Horatio was decent but made no real impression, while Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (John MacMillan and Gwilym Lee) fared slightly better in performances that emphasised the characters' complicity, both becoming severe agents of Claudius in their later scenes. However, their troubled reactions as they were given the letter containing their orders for Hamlet's death spoke of more complexity, and a rare appearance for the English Ambassador provided a welcome reminder of their fates.

Penelope Wilton was perhaps the biggest disappointment, in a performance that extended to little more than hand-wringing for much of its length. Wilton was peculiarly awkward, leaving the character looking ill at ease in her roles as queen, wife and mother. The performance was redeemed somewhat by an effective, physical closet scene, culminating in Hamlet straddling his mother as she lay screaming on the floor, but even here Wilton was the passive partner and Law's energy directed the scene. Following this scene, her repentance was rather unsubtly shown through a couple of occasions where Claudius attempted to take her hand but was refused. Her death, drinking the cup, was entirely accidental, and her upstage death obscured by the rest of the action, leaving her demise anticlimactic.

Happily, not all the supporting performances were as weak. Kevin R McNally made for a strong, decisive Claudius: pragmatic in his wrongdoing, he managed his subjects effectively and invited loyalty from his followers: far more so than in other productions I've seen, one was aware of his abilities as a leader of men. While there was a suitably evil streak, most notably in his dying moments as he crawled across the floor towards Hamlet, snarling and reaching out towards him, McNally gave the role depth with a heartfelt praying scene, the king frustrated by the ineffectiveness of his prayers. In addition to Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and Laertes, Osric became one of Claudius' key henchmen. Ian Drysdale's performance turned the character into an Oswald, first appearing in place of Voltemand as a messenger and later carrying Claudius' errands around the court, before facing Hamlet directly as he encouraged him to take part in what he knew was a trap.

Ron Cook was, for the second time in a Grandage production this year, a highlight. His Polonius entered into a knowing relationship with the audience, making full use of his asides to draw laughs and lighten the tone, engaging our sympathies while at the same time allowing the character to look ridiculous. The character's self-assuredness made him the perfect foil for Hamlet's jibes, the sarcastic comments passing largely unnoticed, and his death marked a decisive turning point in the play's mood. Gugu Mbatha-Raw did some decent work as Ophelia, coming into her own during the madness scenes. Her lines here were sung beautifully, her madness becoming a carefully constructed delusion rather than random ravings.

This was a very full production, for example including all the Fortinbras scenes and both Gravediggers - although, in the latter case, the scene only became funny once David Burke's 1st Gravedigger entered into conversation with Hamlet. The fullness was welcome in the second act: where the first half of the play felt ponderous (at the halfway point, it had only reached the end of 3.1), the second half moved at a fair clip, with the short scenes driving the production forward. Despite my disappointment with some performances and with the production's general uninventiveness, this was a perfectly servicable piece of West End Shakespeare, serving it straight and unfussy. In many ways, it provided an experience akin to a musical: Hamlet's set pieces taking the place of the big musical numbers, with the rest of the production moving the play efficiently along in between. A great Hamlet, then, but a disappointing Hamlet.

February 13, 2009

Twelfth Night (Donmar) @ The Wyndham's Theatre

Writing about web page

Michael Grandage's first Shakespeare for the Donmar's current West End residency opened, quite literally, with a bang, a mighty crash of thunder and lightning. This call to attention opened an efficient and excellently-performed Twelfth Night that was unashamedly traditional in its desire to please and entertain. An unfussy set saw the actors perform in front of stage-high slatted flats, in a world that evoked the high society of early 20th century England, with tuxedos and dresses the order of the day.

One of Grandage's strengths as a director is his ability to draw top-drawer performances from actors. This ensemble was barely faultless, each rendering their characters lively and interesting, even down to the jealous Valentine and Curio, watching their master bestow favours on the pipsqueak upstart who they bullied and intimidated when Orsino wasn't looking.

The performance on which the production had been sold was Derek Jacobi's Malvolio, and he provided excellent value. His hilariously pompous voice and demeanour in earlier scenes, a caricature of the arrogant English butler, only made his discomposure later on the funnier. In yellow stockings and cross garters, Jacobi was game, thrusting his groin and cackling ecstatically when Olivia suggested "To bed". Most impressive, however, was his letter-reading. The scene as a whole was simply staged at the seaside, with one upstage hiding place concealing all the onlookers, and thus Malvolio commanded the entire downstage area, growing increasingly excited and ebullient as the letter progressed. His climax, the battle to contort his face into a grotesque smile, was marvellous.

Just as good, though, were the other comedians. The removal of Fabian (a particular dislike of mine - it's the first part to be cut from the play as the least memorable of the comedians, yet his role is surprisingly crucial and a good Fabian can be extremely funny) interestingly hugely increased Maria's role in the action: she and Toby joined together to play Sir Andrew and Cesario off against one another in the duel; and she confessed to her own part in gulling Malvolio and her subsequent marriage to Toby. The effect was to make Maria a far more active participant, co-ordinating the antics as much as Toby and taking responsibility for her own actions. Samantha Spiro was fast and funny in the role, confident and good-humoured: she began to obey Toby's instructions to bring more booze in direct defiance of Malvolio's presence during the drinking scene, occasioning his disapproval of her. Better still were Ron Cook and Guy Henry as Sir Toby and Sir Andrew. The extreme difference in their heights led to a particularly amusing moment as Sir Andrew carelessly swung round a rolled up screen carried on his shoulder - which passed harmlessly far above Toby's head. Henry's Andrew was a fool; however, the humour didn't come from extreme ridiculousness but from his pathetically endearing aping of Sir Toby, copying him in every gesture and attempting to keep up with his plans. His insistence that "I smell it too!" in response to Maria's device was followed by him echoing Toby's every other word as he attempted to hide the fact that he didn't have a clue of the plan. Sir Toby, meanwhile, was a lovable drunk, a humourous and joyful older man undignified enough to roll on the floor yet compus mentis enough to come up with his plans.

Victoria Hamilton appeared as one of the most girlish Viola's I've ever seen, in elegant corseted dress, soaking wet from the shipwreck. As Cesario, the fact she was a woman was always clear to the audience, the comedy coming from her frantic attempts to maintain her disguise. Hamilton's appeals to the audience ("A little thing would make me tell them how much I lack of a man") were particularly amusing, wide-eyed and nervy before rejoining the fray. However, the strongest aspect of Hamilton's performance was her love for Orsino. When delivering his first message to Olivia, her frustration and bitterness at having to woo someone on behalf of the man she loved were transparent, she becoming genuinely angry with Olivia for not seeing in Orsino what she herself could see. By emphasising the emotional and vulnerable aspects of Viola, Hamilton created a heroine we could truly invest in and laugh with. Indira Varma made for a similarly good Olivia, beginning austere and aloof but quickly cracking into laughter at Feste's early jests. Her growing love for Cesario gradually energised her as the play progressed, increasingly throwing decorum to the wind until she practically tore Sebastian's clothes from him as he agreed to be ruled by her. One of the biggest laughs came from her sexually ravenous "Most wonderful!" on beholding two Cesarios in the final scene, licking her lips and quite clearly contemplating the possibilities. Alex Waldmann was more than receptive to her advances as Sebastian, an energetic performance that emphasised the character's youth and irrepresibility. He needed no pressing to leap into bed with a strange woman, and for once the passion between Olivia and Sebastian felt justified and real.

Other parts were well performed but less impactful. Zubin Varla made for a relatively restrained Feste who, apart from a manic Irish accent as Sir Topaz, drew few laughs besides those in the text. His main strength was as musician and singer; the second act opened with an excellent djembe solo, lasting for some minutes as Viola watched, whlie his songs were performed beautifully. He was distinctly 'other' within the play's aesthetic, wearing coloured patchwork robes next to the early 20th century formalwear of the rest of the cast, but it would have been nice to have seen his role further explored. Mark Bonner's Orsino spent most of the play in dressing gown over bare chest and pyjama trousers, careless of his duties as Duke while enraptured at love. His court had distinct homo-erotic associations, with one scene showing him and his servants, all bare-chested (bar Cesario) learning formal dances in pairs. Lloyd Hutchinson's Irish Antonio, however, was the most marginalised of the main cast. His first two scenes with Sebastian were conducted as essentially walk-overs, with the two pausing in their trek across the stage to conduct the scene before moving on again. It left the scenes feeling like interludes, and Antonio's subsequent interruption of Viola and Andrew's duel lacked the impact of a man leaping to his dear friend's defence, particularly as he didn't even get as far as exchanging blows with Toby before he was arrested. This is one of the first Twelfth Nights I've seen in a while to not noticably eroticise Antonio's feelings for Sebastian, which is the tactic often used to give the character depth. Here, despite a fine performance by Hutchinson, the character simply didn't make an impression.

The final scene was perfectly pitched between threat (Orsino held a knife at Cesario) and comedy (Orsino proposing to Sebastian instead of Viola). The reconciliation between the siblings was touching, and Malvolio's promise of vengeance, hissed at Feste before opening up to include everyone on stage, suitably angry on his part, though relieved by gentle laughter as he hobbled off stage, his legs and face scuffed in black soot. During Feste's final song, as is the modern convention, we saw everyone going their separate ways: the couples leaving together, Andrew leaving alone with a suitcase, Toby and Maria heading off on honeymoon. Antonio settled for a handshake with Viola and Sebastian before leaving by himself, and the lights faded on Feste as he sang his final line.

This was a largely flawless production and hugely well-performed. My only disappointment is that it was so conventional - there were no interpretations, bits of business or deliveries of lines that felt particularly innovative or original. In this sense, it's perhaps the perfect Shakespeare for the West End - traditional, safe, well-acted, short and familiar. It's the Shakespeare that people mean when they talk about how it "should" be done. While personally I wish it had stretched itself a bit more, therefore, there's no denying that this was an extremely enjoyable production and one that maintains the Donmar's reputation for top quality Shakespeare.

This review originally appeared at Shakespeare Revue.

February 12, 2009

The Wonderful Donmar

I'd like to take a moment to tell the world how wonderful the Donmar Warehouse are. Owing to circumstances beyond anyone's control, I missed their current production of Twelfth Night in London, a production I had booked front-row seats for on the first day of sales at not-inconsiderable cost.

However, despite it being in no way their fault, the staff of the Donmar allowed Christmas spirit to prevail and provided two excellent replacement tickets for the same show, which I finally saw yesterday afternoon. This is the most generous and sympathetic customer service I've ever received from a theatre.

Too often theatres treat their customers like cattle, or at the least with an air of slight suspicion, as if the customer is trying to get one over on the organisation. The shoddy service I've received from other theatres (that shall remain nameless) includes: having an order of twenty tickets accidentally credited to another patron's account; having my tickets duplicated and sold twice so other people turned up to my seats with tickets in my name; being uninformed of changes in performance start time and then having my ticket downgraded; and having policies on age restrictions confused by different members of the same staff team. Yet, in all these cases, the theatre has treated me initially as if I caused the problem, and never once have I received an apology apart from from the poor duty manager who ends up having to deal with the problem on the night.

So, it's a genuine delight to find a theatre that went out of its way to help a patron, who generously did what they could to overcome a problem that wasn't of their own making and who recognised that customer service doesn't have to start and end in the theatre lobby. The Donmar are now officially my favourite theatre, and I urge you to patronise their shows as often and as extravangantly as you can. Other theatres - take note.

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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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