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June 29, 2012

Free Teaching Shakespeare webinar

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For readers interested in Shakespearean pedagogy, there's now a very exciting new resource that I'm touting on behalf of my former colleagues at the University of Warwick. "Teaching Shakespeare" is a collaboration between Warwick and the Royal Shakespeare Company, creating a package of interactive resources, guides and videos for use by teachers of Shakespeare. They're hosting a free taster webinar on Sunday 8th July, which you can sign up for now. Enjoy!

June 10, 2012

The Bloody Banquet (Blood and Thunder Theatre Company) @ The Shakespeare Institute

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Thomas Dekker's The Bloody Banquet (possibly written in collaboration with Thomas Middleton) has not been performed, to my knowledge, since the seventeenth century. It was a pleasure, therefore, to be involved in a major new revival of the play in the form of a one-off staged reading in Stratford-upon-Avon, as part of the Stratford Fringe.

Blood and Thunder specialise in the gorier end of the early modern repertory, and The Bloody Banquet fits right in. The play is an unusual mix of romance (lost children, reunited families, a pastoral escape) and chamber murder tragedy in the mould of The Changeling. The deaths come suddenly and unexpectedly in the second act, and the pattern of betrayals, disposal of hitherto loyal servants and passionate decisions felt interestingly modern.

Unusually for this blog, I'm talking about a production that I was actually in - playing Lodovico (who, in this production, ended up being one of the usurping King's wetworks men), a Shepherd and a Servant, and in practice serving to manage a lot of the scene transitions and body disposal. That does mean I didn't get an overview of the reading, so I'll just confine myself here to a few observations.

The play is full of fantastic villains. Peter Malin's Roxano emerged as one of the play's most fascinating characters. Spending much of the first half in disguise, Roxano was a consummate game-player, an amoral manipulator of events in the manner of Bosola, Vasques or Deflores. The same group of characters was similarly revisited in Matt Kubus's portrayal of Mazeres, one of Roxano's initial employers and probably the closest the play has to a total villain (although even here, driven by something that he conceives of as love for Amphridote, in another echo of Deflores). The characterisation across the board was fascinating; in Marc Alden Taylor's hands, Zenarchus became a deeply conflicted figure, displaying his beautiful mother (Kelley Costigan's Queen of Cilicia) to his best friend Tymethes (Jose A. Perez Diez) and acting towards the death/distraction of both of his sister Amphridote's (Rachel Stewart) lovers. Steve Quick found a quietness in the tyrannical Armatrites that prevented the character from being merely a blustering tyrant, particularly in his delicious exposure of his Queen's lies about her fidelity, pausing for effect as he embraced her with compliments then unleashed his accusation of "Whore". The Queen herself, object of all men's affections, was similarly quiet in this production, making her sudden execution of Tymethes all the more unexpected. The play's 'money shot' - the Queen demurely eating Tymethes' head - employed a melon in place of Diez's skull and provided a grim image, particularly as (so I hear reported) Costigan slowly pulled a hair out of the red pulp.

The opening plot is hugely underwritten. The opening scenes set up the flight of the Queen of Lydia from the coup that unseats her husband, and Emma Hartland cut a striking image carrying two swaddled babies and fleeing from the ravaging soldiers Richard Nunn and Brendan Lovett. The treachery and redemption of Lapyrus (Mike Connell), nephew the King of Lydia (Patrick Kincaid) allowed for a nice bit of staging with Lapyrus pulled by branches from a pit (behind a rostrum), then slowly lifting his face as he reached solid ground to meet his uncle's gaze; but it still seems surprising to me that this group of characters is then not revisited until the final scene. Director Maria Jeffries chose to cut the dumbshows, instead staging the expository choruses as walkthroughs with characters introducing themselves, which hopefully helped clarify the plot; but perhaps served to point up how briefly several of the scenes are dealt with, such as the loss of one of the Queen of Lydia's children and the rescue of another by two shepherds (myself and Dale Forder).

The first half set up; the second half tore down. I had the impression of a running joke as Sertorio and Lodovico (Forder and myself) were repeatedly called in by Armatrites to pull bodies off stage; having carried off Tymethes, Mazeres, Zenarches and Amphridote, one became particularly aware of the speed and frequency of killing. While the reading was done in basic costume and with only necessary props (although the resources of the company meant that these were far more impressive than normal for a staged reading), but a fine reaction was reserved for the appearance of a rack of bloody limbs. The final unveiling of the returning Lydian King and his men also prompted laughter, and Armatrites had the opportunity for a final display of hubris as he executed his Queen and died on his knees.

I saw very few of the performances in their entirety, so the above is based entirely on bits of shared stage time and the snippets of rehearsal I sat through. One thing seemed to be generally agreed on, however; it's a fine play, with compelling links to similar plays from the period and some truly memorable characters and moments. Pleasure to be involved in a reading of this nature too; I'm by no means an actor, but great to get a chance to see how a performance is put together from the inside.

April 23, 2012

Britgrad 2012

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I don't normally repost non-performance related material up here, but I'm always happy to make an exception in the case of Britgrad, the annual postgraduate Shakespeare conference at the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon, which has been a very good friend to me over the last five years. I'm now ineligible to attend myself, but if there are any graduate readers out there, do consider putting in an abstract - it's a fantastic place to meet like-minded folks and hear some fantastic papers. The line-up of plenaries is simply spectacular this year.

Message begins:


The Shakespeare Institute

The University of Birmingham

June 14-16, 2012

Call for papers

Deadline Friday 4 May 2012

We invite graduate students with interests in both Shakespearean and Renaissance studies to join us in June for the Fourteenth Annual British Graduate Shakespeare Conference.

The interdisciplinary conference provides a friendly but stimulating academic forum in which graduate students from all over­ the world can present their research and meet together in an active centre of Shakespearean research and theatre: Shakespeare’s home town of Stratford-upon-Avon. Undergraduate students in their final two years of study are also invited to attend the conference as auditors.

The conference will feature talks by Peter Holland (Notre Dame), Tiffany Stern (Oxford), Paul Menzer (Mary Baldwin), Martin Butler (Leeds), Deborah Shaw (RSC), René Weis (UCL), and Katherine Duncan-Jones (Oxford). Delegates have the opportunity to attend the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Richard III, part of the World Shakespeare Festival, at a group-booking price. Lunch will be provided each day, and delgates are invited to a dance and drinks reception one night.

We invite abstracts of approximately 200 words for papers twenty minutes in length (3,000 words or less). Delegates wishing to give papers must register by Friday 4 May 2012. We strongly encourage early registration to ensure a place on the conference programme.

Our website contains more information about the event and venue, including prices and downloadable registration forms:

Find us on Facebook: BritGrad 2012

Email us with questions at:

May 29, 2011

The Memorable Masque @ The Shakespeare Institute

The annual British Graduate Shakespeare Conference pleasingly put performance at the centre of this year's plenary events. As well as a taster by the Institute's performance research group for their upcoming Macbeth, we were treated to a staged reading of George Chapman's The Memorable Masque of the Middle Temple and Lincoln's Inn, first performed to celebrate the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Count Frederick V in 1613, and now restaged under the direction of Jacqueline MacDonald.

A cast of Institute staff and students (including Stanley Wells as "George Chapman" reading out the authorial stage directions) walked through the elaborate masque, whose visual elements were represented by overhead projections and whose music was provided live by Cecilia Kendall-White. The aim was to give a flavour of the formality and shapes of the masque, directed towards two thrones at one end of the Shakespeare Institute Hall.

The performance included two fully-staged formal dances, one with torches and one between four couples, which were pleasingly complex and stately, the company having taken the time to give them their full prominence. More obviously entertaining, however, were Andrew Hippel, Gareth Bernard, Jason Burg and Richard Nunn who entered as baboons, picking fleas off audience members and dancing crazily in the centre of the space. As Kendall-White played, however, the baboons became entranced by her music (I couldn't help but think of 2001!) and gradually fell into co-ordinated swaying, before she led them off the stage.

The main story of the masque hinged around the eventual marriage of Plutus (Riches) and Honour, played by José Alberto Pérez Díez and Yolana Wassersug. Díez owned the stage, walking confidently about and raising his eyebrows at the audience at some of the more outlandish moments. The first half of the masque saw him bantering with Martin Wiggins as the bellows-wearing Capriccio, whose arm first emerged from a side area of the hall, pushing aside a door standing for the split rock of the text. Capriccio was a lively presence, competing with Plutus for prominence on a raised platform.

The arrival of Helen Osborne's Eunomia announced the beginning of the more formal masque, followed by Honour herself and Phemis (Kelley Costigan). The three women processed in in stately fashion, and their dialogue with Plutus was interspersed with the formal dancing. Costigan spoke the several songs, and the company finally assembled for bows before the thrones before leaving in procession.

Masques aren't particularly my favourite form of entertainment, and in some ways a rehearsed reading ill-serves a medium which is so dependent on visual display. However, it was surprisingly fascinated to see a staged version. The Memorable Masque is surprisingly simple at its core, and the company did a great job of exposing the skeleton of a piece rooted in the movement of bodies in very formal patterns. I was particularly impressed with the dancing, but it was also a pleasure simply to see in three dimensions a piece of theatre so much more co-ordinated and determined than the usual plays. I was sorry not to be able to stay for the post-show discussion, but I'm very much hoping this practice-as-research project continues to develop.

May 10, 2011

Shakespeare Poetry Hour @ The Underglobe

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Just a quick note on a thoroughly pleasant event last night. As part of the British Academy's Literature Week, Elisabeth Dutton (who did wonders with Hoffman last year) directed a series of snippets designed to illustrate interactions between players and audiences, drawn from the early modern drama and later. The programme ran as follows:

  • Fulgens and Lucrece (Induction, with household members waiting for a play to begin)
  • A Midsummer Night's Dream I.ii (the Mechanicals' first rehearsal)
  • John Manningham's Diary (13 March 1602, the anecdote about Burbage, Shakespeare and a smitten citizen)
  • Romeo and Juliet (I.iii, the Nurse telling Juliet and Lady Capulet her life story)
  • Nicholas Nickleby (a character study of the Nurse's deceased husband)
  • The Knight of the Burning Pestle (Induction, as a play is interrupted by two citizens and their apprentice)
  • Hamlet III.ii ("The Mousetrap")
  • Great Expectations (Pip describing a disastrous Hamlet)
  • The Epilogues from As You Like It, All's Well that Ends Well, A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Tempest.

I'l be honest, these portmanteau shows aren't my thing, but it was a lovely concept, pulling together recognisable and unfamiliar instances of audiences intervening in or being dragged into performances, blurring the boundaries between "real" and "fictive" worlds. Four game actors (Bill Buckhurst, Frances Marshall, Philip Bird, Vivien Heilbron) did a fine job, and it made for an entertaining hour in the Underglobe, the Globe's central exhibition hall. It also set up the evening's lecture by Laurie Maguire ideally. Most importantly though, it reminded me how much I really want to see a production of Burning Pestle (and I know I wasn't the only one to think this), for even in the short Induction scene, I found myself laughing and drawn to the oblivious citizens and the charismatic Rafe.

May 09, 2011

The Honest Man's Fortune @ Canterbury Christ Church University

I've remarked before now on a show I've been involved in behind the scenes, but never before on something in which I've acted. I use "acting" in the loosest possible sense, and the less said about my board-treading the better, but it was a pleasure this weekend to be involved in a staged reading of The Honest Man's Fortune in Canterbury as part of a Renaissance colloquium organised by Steve Orman.

The play, by Field and Fletcher (and Massinger?), is a fun citizen comedy from 1613, that begins with the ruination of the titular honest man, Montaigne, and traces his fall at the hands of creditors, his reduction to servitude in the house of a virtuous lady (Lamira) and his restoration to riches as the eventual chosen husband of the lady. Alongside this, Montaigne's persecutor - the jealous Lord Orleans - turfs out his wife over suspicion of an ongoing affair with Montaigne and falls out with his brother-in-law, Amiens. The two are eventually reconciled with each other and with their defamed wife/sister following a duel plot partially stage-managed by Montaigne's loyal supporters, Longaville and Dubois. Three comic malefactors partially responsible for Montaigne's fall (Laverdure, La Poope and Mallicorne) present themselves as suitors to Lamira and are rebuffed by Montaigne; and Montaigne's loyal page Veramour is pursued by Laverdure, convinced that the boy is actually a woman. It is only revealed at the end, amid a flurry of winking to other plays, that Veramour is in fact the boy he always appeared to be.

The play is a surprisingly tight mixture of elements familiar from texts as diverse as Philaster, A New Way to Pay Old Debts, The Taming of the Shrew, Timon of Athens and even The Odyssey in its greedy suitors. In performance, despite very little rehearsal, it proved to be surprisingly stageable and entertaining. While it was obviously impossible for me to watch it properly while performing in it, I'll just make a few observations here.

In Brian McMahon's hands, Montaigne was a pleasingly complex combination of wistful persecuted hero and vocal righter of wrongs. "Honest" appeared to be key, rather than "good" - his test of Lady Orlean's virtue was initially extremely creepy and lecherous; his readiness to draw against Amiens and the officers showed him proactive; and he took no small pleasure in his final passing of judgement against the dishonourable suitors. This made him far more interesting than the stoic sufferer I'd initially expected, and a much more compelling protagonist.

The play fell rather conveniently into two halves, the first dealing primarily with Montaigne's fall at the hands of creditors, lawyers etc. and the second moving into a much more domestic sphere in and around Lamira's house. Longaville (Orman) and Dubois (myself) are quite prominent in the first half and much less so in the second, Dubois in particular being practically forgotten about by the text. The text appears to set up a great deal with the two, particularly their agreement to feign loyalty to the great lords (which provided great scope for a lot of shouting, bravado and flailing of imaginary swords), which then unwinds in one key scene as the Lady Orleans is apparently shot. This isn't just a note on the amount I had to do (!) but speaks interestingly to the change in tone and focus, with male friendships and public relationships replaced by a greater concern for heterosexual union in the second half. The unifying factor in this was Kelley Costigan's melancholic Veramour, always positioned to the side of the stage in the first half declaring his devotion for his master; but moving to more central roles in the second half as his gender came into question. The page dominated the final act too, Costigan bringing out the playfulness of Veramour when posing as a girl, before revealing his true gender.

The comic characters were surprisingly effective. Martin Wiggins brilliantly stepped in at short notice to play Charlotte and La Poope. The former began by playing on the type of the lecherous maid-servant, flirting shamelessly with the humbled Montaigne and providing a clearly undesirable contrast to the higher-class ladies; but later Wiggins brought out the sweetness of Charlotte's loyalty, culminating in the revelation that she had only been wooing Montaigne on behalf of her mistress. As La Poope, meanwhile, he was a gruff and blustering sailor whose disregard for social niceties made him a constantly entertaining presence. Nicola Boyle contrasted ideally as the courtier Laverdure, whose character was defined primarily by the amusing banter with Veramour during their flirtation and the shared cowardice with La Poope, the two cowering in doorways rather than joining in battles. I also particularly enjoyed the contrast between the two men in the final moments, as La Poope took Laverdure's place and embraced Veramour as a potential new cabin boy. I took on Mallicorne at the last minute and didn't really do the role justice - he begins as a fairly unambiguously treacherous character, tricking Montaigne's money away from him and then smugly revealing he has arranged for his arrest. Then, however, he tags along with the comic duo of Laverdue and La Poope, but I struggled to work out how he integrates with their already-established dynamic.

Alex Samson was the villain of the piece as the jealous Orleans, giving the role the forcefulness necessary to drive the action of the first half - he unseats Montaigne, drives away his wife and Amiens, encourages the conflicts between Longaville and Dubois and, finally, maintains the negative energy that leads up to the climactic staged assassination of Lady Orleans. He is only accorded a relatively quick penance, but Samson stuck to the principle that the character is essentially noble, which allowed his about-face to carry conviction and a consistency in the vehemence with which he repented. He was contrasted throughout (in a play full of doubles, these contrasts abounded) with Astrid Stilma's Amiens. Stilma brought a complexity to the role similar to that accorded to Montaigne - essentially virtuous, but with a temper and aggression that argued for virtue as an active and combative quality rather than a passive state. Much of the post-show discussion focussed on Amiens, who is interestingly established as an honest man at the play's opening and remains throughout a potential mate for Lamira, but who is ultimately left disappointed at the play's conclusion, despite his pleasure in Lamira's choice of Montaigne. I particularly liked Stilma's sense of sadness as she deferred to Montaigne at this final point.

Finally, the two women stood as types of female virtue, but once more interestingly contrasted. Jackie Watson (I hope I've spelled that correctly) played Lady Orleans as patient victim, pushed away by her husband but remaining loyal, and acting throughout as a voice of conscience. Claire Bartram's Lamira, meanwhile, was interestingly independent of male attachments, aloof with the suitors and tender of her servants. She held court throughout and, in some respects, took the Ducal role of the guarantor of order and restitution. It was an interestingly powerful role for a woman, despite the voiced objectification of her by the suitors, and it was fascinating to see her preside over the final scene and put Montaigne through the performance of espousing virtue and condemnation, in a gender-reversal of the conclusion of Shrew.

So, a fun event, even if I can't review it properly! It's a fascinating play, and generated some interesting post-show discussion. Hopefully the publication of a new edition in the Malone Society reprints this year will encourage further production, and with the re-opening of the Swan, it'd be wonderful if the RSC could explore it at a professional level in the near future.

November 14, 2010

Alphonsus, Emperor of Germany @ Shakespeare's Globe

I've never, to my everlasting shame, been to a Read Not Dead reading at the Globe, which is something of a travesty for someone with such an interest in overlooked and rarely-performed early modern drama. To be fair, they're at 3pm on a Sunday and - as was borne out today - it's a pain to get back to Coventry after them. However, despite coming rather late to the party, I have to say that today's reading of Chapman's(?)/Peele's(?) Alphonsus, Emperor of Germany made a fan of me.

With the Inigo Jones theatre unavailable, Matthew Smith's production was staged simply in the rather cramped space of the main lecture theatre, but provided a clear and entertaining - if a little too slow for my taste - runthrough of the play. This 1590s play of revenge and political intrigue - a sort of Richard III meets Hoffman by way of The Jew of Malta - was built around Alan Cox's sneering, self-obsessed Alphonsus and Nick Kay as his murderous assistant Alexander, who progressed from boyish avenger to seasoned evil in a compelling arc. The relationship between the two was particularly effective in the final act, with their evil almost on a par as Alexander grew into independence.

The complex plot was ably clarified by effective differentiation between the seven electors who are Alphonsus's enemies, from Andy Whipp's calm Bohemia to Kevin Quarmby's Mentz, who began dour and ended in a frenzy of OTT pleading with Death on behalf of his "dying" sovereign, before giving a look of priceless horror as his wishes to be killed were interpreted literally by Alexander. I particularly liked Robert Mountford in the small role of Brandenburg, whose expressive eyes and outraged expression at slights against German honour provided great humour.

With the play essentially revolving around the repeated offing of various nobles, it was inevitably Alphonsus who dominated. His easy relationship with the audience - showing us his poison bottles, giving the thumbs up, luxuriating in soliloquy - rendered him an engaging protagonist, and his careful control and manipulation of those around him was brought out neatly as Cox slid between his enemies, choreographing the action. As such, his last minute conversion was a little disappointing, but reached a final dramatic peak as he grandly renounced Heaven, arms outstretched one last time to the audience.

The comic tone of Cox's performance was realised elsewhere, notably in the long German-language scene in which the disguised Duke Richard of Cornwall was beset by two assassins. James Wallace found plenty of comic fodder in his whispered translations of the assassins' words, and the battle itself was carried out in a farcical mix of men hitting one another with paper and the melodramatic death rattles of Quarmby's Jerick. Similar amusement was found in the dance scene, as the actors good-humouredly attempted a series of dance moves within which the whispered conversations of others could take place.

Dale Rapley's Edward was central to the humorous tone, and to the shifts to darker matter in the second half. In the wooing of Hedewick - the scene most usually picked out for its Shakespearean resonance, mirroring Henry V's flirtation with Katharine - he combined cynicism, exasperation and hearty bravado. Later, upon having lost his wife through a trapdoor, his plaints caused plenty of laughter in both onstage and offstage audience. Yet, as characters began to die, Edward became a focus for moral conscience. The horrific scene in which Liam McKenna's Duke of Saxony demanded that Edward acknowledge Hedewick's child as his (Alexander had performed a bed trick and secretly fathered her child) was the climax of the production: after repeated shouted arguments and Edward's assertions of his own honour, Saxony put Hedewick's baby on the floor, and then stamped violently on its head before throwing the body to the English Prince, an action played so carefully and respectfully that it drew a genuine gasp of terror from the audience. His subsequent killing of his own daughter left no doubts that the play was no comedy.

The work of the RND team is significant and important; a play such as Alphonsus, which hasn't been edited in well over a century and is practically unknown and unreferenced in studies of the drama, can have an airing and be enjoyed in a format that reasserts the play's importance. The good humour and sophistication brought by an experienced group of actors resulted in a performance far more accomplished than one might expect, and a wish that this sensational play might some day get the bigger treatment it deserves.

October 12, 2010

Double Falsehood @ Nottingham Playhouse

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To call this "The First Public Reading" of Double Falsehood, as the website promises, wasn't entirely accurate (see the KDC production and our own modest, but still public, reading at Warwick), but this was at least the first public reading of the play, since the publication of Brean Hammond's excellent Arden edition, by a professional theatre company.

The reading was performed on the set of Nottingham Playhouse's current Twelfth Night, from which some of the cast were drawn. When "off-stage", the cast sat on the set (a huge set of stone stairs leading up to a Brazilian pavillion); when "on", they moved forward to a semi-circle of chairs, on which they sat to read their parts. I was a little disappointed that the reading was so static; while the reading out of stage directions for moments of physical action worked fine, several basics (such as, quite often, the person being addressed) were frustratingly unsignalled, and the impact of asides, overhearings and movement dynamics were lost. Concealment was inconsistently dealt with - sometimes (e.g. Julio behind the arras) the actor simply withdrew to the "offstage" position; on other occasions (Violante listening to Roderick and the fathers) the actor sat at the far end of the circle of chairs.

The other weaknesses of a short rehearsal period were to be expected - a couple of actors struggled with some of their language, clearly not having had time to get to grips with the sense (sample error: in the line "but that I publish my Dishonour, /And wound my Fame anew", "wound" was prounced nonsensically as "wow-nd" instead of "woond"); and entrances and exits were sometimes confused to misleading effect (e.g. 3.3.118-28 were addressed to Roderick by Violante, instead of as soliloquy). Errors such as these are inevitable in a rehearsed reading; however, if the purpose of a reading is to give a good sense of language and structure, particularly in the case of a play often written off as "bad", these are the elements that should always be prioritised - otherwise, what's the point?

Moving beyond those caveats, though, this was an entertaining evening, and it was a pleasure to hear a professional cast taking on the play. A sample delight was David Gilbrook's wonderful performance as the Master of the Flocks. Making full use of the stage environment, he pulled Violante's chair closer to his own before she sat down, and then proceeded to brush her cheek and put his arm around her, all with a huge smirk on his face. The obvious discomfort of the younger Violante added to the humour and creepiness of the scene, and Gilbrook's frustrated and piqued treatment of Roderick following the latter's interruption was particularly amusing. Beyond showing the effectiveness of this short moment, though, Gilbrook's emphasis also drew out the unusual but fascinating fact that, in 137-48 as he reveals to the audience he has seen through Violante's disguise, he continues to refer to her as "him" throughout. This might be read as a reflection of his own uncertainty, or perhaps suggest that he hasn't identified her as a girl yet and thus hasn't yet decided to attempt a seduction; here, however, Gilbrook brought out a wonderfully appropriate confusion of sexual fantasies about the feminine boy/boyish girl that ran over niceties of gender in his lustful excitement.

There was some nice characterisation throughout. Joe Dempsie and Kieran Hardcastle brought out a modestly amusing side to Fabian and Lopez that justified their treatment as comic characters without the need for excess; and their doubling in all of the servant/citizen roles worked nicely from a dramaturgical point of view, turning the functionaries into a series of recognisable and fleshed-out servant character types. David Whittington and George Telfer, meanwhile, treated the fathers largely with dignity, although Telfer lounged luxuriantly as Don Bernard reached the pinnacle of his pride, which added nicely to these scenes. Camillo's interjections, particularly in the final scene, were spoken well, but suffered in the sedentary format - 5.2, with its careful layering of characters, liminal appearances and overlooked events, offered particular challenges in this regard.

Loreto Murray was particularly interesting as Leonora, bringing out a feisty side to the heroine which worked well. Neither shrew nor demurring maid, Leonora became a recognisably modern heroine, managing her father with a mixture of annoyance and restraint, and organising the plot surrounding the wedding. In this, and in her hiding of Julio, she became by far the stronger of the two lovers. Jonathan Race as Julio, by contrast, portrayed the character as a noble-minded but somewhat idealistic hero, prone to talking but ultimately dependent on others to push him into place.

Marcus Powell's polite, well-spoken Henriquez was a serious sort, believable as a conflicted (and often out of control) young man, though perhaps a little too so; I found him far more sympathetic than the text had perhaps led me to think; and this might, again, be something lost in action. The justification of the rape was interesting; with no break, Henriquez remained on stage, which allowed for a visual continuity of thought between the two scenes despite the passage of time, thus giving Powell the opportunity to enact a deliberate break in his attitude. Finn Atkins, meanwhile, was sympathetically broken as Violante, and was surprisingly effective in the "boy" scenes - without prop disguise, Atkins was dependent merely on changes of voice to suggest the disguise, and perfectly evoked a melancholy Cockney waif. I was also pleased to see that Roderick (Nicholai La Barrie) defaulted to a central position in most of his scenes, allowing him to co-ordinate the action with an innocent and commanding air, remaining the audible locus of authority within the play.

Interestingly the Epilogue was retained, read by Gilbrook. I tried to gauge the audience reaction to this horrendous piece of writing; and wasn't surprised to get the impression that no-one knew quite what to make of it. Gilbrook's delivery, in a tone of smug self-amusement, was what I would expect from a 21st century ironic take on the 18th century sentiments, but I still felt it was a brave decision to play it - and the right one. The Prologue, of course, posed fewer difficulties, but remained a fitting introduction to a production presented in a spirit of Bardic inquiry.

A talk beforehand from Brean Hammond gave a good general introduction to the play (essentially a much shorter version of his Arden introduction), but did give him the opportunity to play us the extant song settings that he believes to have been potentially part of the play's early incarnations, as well as to gently tease an anti-Stratfordian in the crowd who had offered him some useful extra sources. I wasn't able to stay for the post-show talk, but it'll be interesting to see how further readings/performances of the play go down, particularly as we move towards next year's big productions in New York and Stratford.

September 26, 2010

The Tragedy of Hoffman @ Magdalen College, Oxford

Writing about Hoffman Symposium, Magdalen College, Oxford from The Shakespeare apocrypha

Seeing a rehearsed reading mounted by an academic society for an academic conference allows for some bizarre moments. One image from Elisabeth Dutton's The Tragedy of Hoffman will stay with me for a long time, as it featured some of the academics whose work I most admire: Laurie Maguire, Katherine Duncan-Jones and Lois Potter as enlisted soldiers frogmarching in time to the barked orders of Old Stilt, played by Richard Proudfoot. While amusing, it perhaps also testifies to the fact that this reading, despite being rehearsed in a little over twenty-four hours, was something of a labour of love for those involved, a long-awaited chance to see a neglected but eminently stageworthy tragedy finally put on its feet.

I shouldn't give the impression that this was a "jolly" of any description though: Dutton's production boasted an exceptional cast (one, Brian McMahon as Mathias, even off-book) and a fully-staged, full-length version of the text, based on John Jowett's little-known Nottingham edition. Interestingly, the consistency of character names was thorough but unmatched: where the beginning and end of the quarto refers to "Hoffman" and "Otho", and the middle uses "Sarlois" and "Charles", this production (and presumably Jowett's text) used "Hoffman" and "Charles" throughout.

The production even stretched to thunder and lightning effects in the opening scene, and two skeletons (one real) had been procured to stand for the bodies of Hoffman's father and Charles. The skeletons exerted a powerful effect on the production, drawing both audience and actors inexorably towards them and appearing to govern action and response. As Dutton later noted, the fact that one was real and thus extremely fragile meant that the actors had to work around the prop, rather than vice versa; but the effect was to heighten the sense of reverence that Hoffman felt for his father, while at the same time accentuating the horror of his actions. At one point, as he announced he would walk hand in hand with his father to revenge, he actually clasped the hand of the skeleton in an act of twisted tenderness; and later, he draped an arm casually around Charles's skeleton. Hoffman's familiarity and ease with death spoke, not of disrespect, but rather of a morbid fascination that rendered his subsequent actions all the more unpredictable.

Dominik Kracmar's wonderful performance as Hoffman began with the offstage screech of hysterical laughter as he banished his melancholy. What stood out for me in Kracmar's reading was the joy he took in the character's double-backing and knowing trickery: as his accusations of treachery against Rodorick were proven false, for example, his eyes bulged with momentary hesitation before he proclaimed that "there is villainy, practice and villainy!" Engaged with the audience at all times, his shrugs and ironic delivery created a metadramatic tone that served the production well: rather than mock the conventions of revenge tragedy, this production simply showed a self-conscious awareness of its own performativity, allowing it to be amusing without approaching self-ridicule. Kracmar was crucial to this, but at the same time his partial dissociation from the main action (the various courtiers were particularly "inward-looking", concerned with their own reactions and losses rather than any larger narrative, which made sense of how easily Hoffman achieved his political ambitions) rendered him a somewhat lonely figure, often watching from the sides as fathers grieved and children died.

Kracmar was supported - and very nearly upstaged - by Nicholas Shrimpton's Lorrique, an older Cockney villain with a great line in evil cackles. Lorrique matched his master's metatheatricality, even to the point of lifting his French disguise to wink at the audience before commencing his scene with Jerome. Treading the fine line between comic servant and sinister assistant with considerable skill, Shrimpton turned Lorrique into a compelling protagonist, an amoral villain with a clear sense of his own identity. His affectation of abused innocence was especially effective, ingratiating him convincingly with the court while continuing to plot in the audience's hearing. Yet he and his master were also human in their scheming, and fallible: twice in the play, an "aside" is actually overheard by an onstage character, and on both occasions (Hoffman reassuring Charles; Lorrique hastily backpedalling under the rage of his master) genuine comedy and dramatic tension was found as these villains attempted desperately to account for themselves. Where the play appears to recommend itself on its action, in practice it was the fast tongues of both Hoffman and Lorrique that kept me rivetted.

In another pleasant surprise, the third dominant personality was Martha, played by Edwina Christie, despite only entering the play in its final third. Emerging dramatically from the audience along with her ladies, and standing in a spotlight, clad in black, the impact of this character's introduction was strikingly felt. Martha was the only person with the self-awareness and wit to be able to understand and counter the treachery of Hoffman and Lorrique, and so she entered as a type of nemesis; a quietly poised and self-possessed personality who, even before Hoffman appeared, was clearly too significant for him to be able to dispatch. Christie's strong performance emphasised Martha's subtle manipulation of the murderers, particularly as she gently "seduced" Hoffman in order to draw him into an ambush.

The middle section of the play was partly taken up with the comic subplot of Jerome's insurrection. Kelley Costigan's fantastically-costumed Jerome was every inch the stage braggart: striding about, gesturing wildly and allowing no word of conversation to pass without his comment. In a tour de force performance, he engaged in a long and affectionate discourse with his toy horse (that, reversed, served as a sword), defied everyone else on stage and generally added colour and comic value. Yet, in Costigan's performance, something a little more pathetic could also be glimpsed; the loneliness and desperation of a son disinherited by his father, and there was a note - just a note - of poignancy in his death. She was ably supported by Stephen Longstaffe's Stilt, who stood out in his final simple pleas before execution, convinced in his twisted worldview that his actions were in some way understandable.

The appropriation of self-consciously theatrical types throughout, as in Costigan and Kracmar's performances, fed into the love-plot too. The flight of David Kennerley's Lodowick and Sarah Anson's Lucibella was made into a very amusing sequence: dressed in ludicrous Grecian costumes, they lay on an arbour and delivered over the top promises of fidelity to each other before falling asleep on rich cushions. While the revenge plot overtook the romance motifs, however, Anson brought something very interesting out of Lucibella in her later madness, particularly after reappearing in Charles's clothes. She became a breeches part, boyish and strident, and active in drawing the counter-revengers into her service. While the body-count in this play is particularly high, I was struck by how many of the main cast were still alive at the end to surround and subdue Hoffman; what kind of society, one wonders, is implied by the survival of the doddery Saxony, the once-traitorous Rodorick, the cross-dressed Lucibella and the suicical Mathias?

What were the weaknesses of the production? Well, the fact that this was a reading meant that some of the more involved pieces of physical action (particularly Hoffman secretly stabbing Austria) were difficult to pull off, though in the context this hardly mattered. I was also struck by how long and inert certain scenes of the play are, particularly that in which Lorrique recaps the entire plot for his onstage audience - and he's a far less interesting character once he has his change of heart! It's inevitable, in a play so rarely performed, that putting it on its feet will reveal not only the strengths but also the reasons why it perhaps doesn't work so well on the modern stage, but it was great to at least see action tried out, even if a full production would probably cut it.

Other issues inherent in the text were drawn out. How is, for example, Lorrique meant to get a burning crown onto Charles's head in the opening scene - a powerful and shocking opening to the play. Here, it became a semi-comic routine as Lorrique attempted to drop it onto his head from a shovel, before picking it up from the floor with "burning" fingers. It was also noted, later in the day, how effective the characters' rhetoric remains even while their brains are being burned out! Despite the play being apparently incomplete in the extant version, the company aimed to "finish" the play by having Hoffman don the burning crown during his final two speeches, spoken as he clutched at the torture device. From my point of view, this worked absolutely fine. In a play that is so resolutely about the central character, having Hoffman kneel and curse his persecutors as his brains are fried out seemed a powerful and fitting, if unconventional, close. It's a crying shame that the production only got this one airing, but with a bit of luck, the availability of a cheap, modernised text in Emma Smith's forthcoming edition will allow more amateur and professional troupes to rediscover this thoroughly entertaining play.

September 14, 2009

Reviewing Shakespearian Theatre conference @ The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

I normally discuss academic conferences over on my PhD blog, but the unique theme of this particular conference – and its implications for my work – means it merits inclusion within the Bardathon’s remit. Seeing as it’s been very quiet here on the reviewing front (very few new openings in my area, and I’ve been moving house which has limited the free time in which I have to travel), it also seems an appropriate time to use the conference for a bit of self-reflection.

I was only able to attend the first day of this conference at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, so I missed the second day’s discussion of the RSC’s As You Like It. The first day, however, was of extreme use and interest. Keynote addresses from Michael Billington and Peter Holland bookended the event neatly with perspectives on reviewing from top journalistic and academic performance critics. In between, a panel discussion brought together a range of perspectives on reviewing: critic Michael Coveney, academic Carol Rutter, Guardian arts editor Andrew Dickson, director Tim Supple and actor Janet Suzman, with Stanley Wells chairing. Finally, a seminar session discussed the papers of twelve delegates, including my own.

Billington’s keynote was as interesting as on the other occasions I’ve heard him speak, giving an illuminating and acutely-observed history of changes in British theatre-making over the last few decades. As productions have moved from actor/actor-manager-led to a director’s theatre, reviewing has changed in response. While this is undoubtedly true, it leaves reviewing in a rather passive state, able only to respond rather than develop in its own directions. For this reason, I was a little disappointed, as I’d hoped the theme of the conference might provoke Billington to be a bit more self-reflective about his own craft. My sense of disappointment, though, was only a result of my own prior hopes for the content of his lecture; as it was, it provided an insightful contextual opening for the rest of the day’s discussion, while also opening up questions that would continue to concern participants for the rest of the day: how does the critic define what qualifies as “Shakespeare”? How is the role of the critic evolving in response to developments in blogging and online criticism? And what, ultimately, is the reviewer’s purpose?

While occasionally meandering a little into discussions of performance (as opposed to performance criticism), the panel session touched on extremely pertinent questions, some of which I’ll try to briefly summarise. Firstly, the question of who reviews are for. Suzman admitted that she wasn’t sure what she could usefully add to the discussion, as she herself never reads reviews. She seemed to believe this is the case with the majority of actors (though I am very aware that several actors do read reviews, including occasionally on this blog – perhaps it’s simply a matter of personal choice); however, this led to questions of the impact of reviews. How far can a bad notice affect a practitioner? And should practitioners ever read reviews? A key debate seems to be the matter of how far critics and practitioners may learn from each other, or whether the two should operate in relative independence. Reviews are, after all, surely aimed primarily at audiences, potential or past. This fed into Peter Holland’s later, insightful discussion of the operations of the blogosphere, which saw reviews interacting and circulating within a network of informed and interested parties: opinions are articulated for the benefit of others with their own opinions. He articulated the danger of this sphere becoming too self-contained, but then this is also a danger with the ‘traditional’ reviewing field. Ultimately, it is spectators who we should be writing for.

The blogosphere came in for a kicking in the panel discussion, which several other delegates were interested in my thoughts on. One panel member (I forget who) compared it to the “Britain’s Got Talent” mentality, in which everyone feels they can – and have a right to – express an opinion, regardless of any measure of quality. Concerns were raised over the threat that free opinion offers to the authority of established reviewers, and a challenge was raised. Where are the new reviewers going to come from? Tim Supple asked Michael Billington to name a promising young reviewer under the age of thirty, and remained unanswered.

The problem here is that experience is assumed as the prerequisite for good reviewing, which seemed to negate the possibility of there ever being a ‘good’ young reviewer. Good writing can be learned, experience can only be got over time. This is a completely fair argument, and it is through experience that professional reviewers will always be able to locate and articulate their authority. However, my riposte would be that there is room for a plurality of opinions, and that there are different kinds of experience. You don’t need to have seen fifty-seven Hamlets in order to experience and write about the power of a given production, and Holland provided some interesting examples of vox pop reviewing, praising the instinctive responses of the young respondents for their immediacy and freshness. If young people can learn the discipline of writing well and communicate their own responses in a form that means something to others, then surely the necessary experience will come in time. To be unable to name the promising young reviewers at this time is, I believe, no cause for concern.

Andy Dickson, fighting valiantly on the panel for the positives of e-reviewing, was in any case able to name some promising young reviewers and blogs. His inclusion on the panel was a blessing, as it prevented the discussion from becoming too bogged down in negativity towards new forms of reviewing. As I remarked when asked for my opinion at various times during the day, the truth is that blogging, amateur criticism and e-reviewing is the future. It’s how people of my generation and younger find value in their interests, by being able to communicate them to international audiences of like-minded people, and all fields of criticism are moving that way. To try to resist this is futile; we need to be discussing how these forms can be usefully integrated with more traditional forms, not if. Dickson, and people like him, are going to be the most important people in this change because they are thinking positively about how these forms of criticism are to be integrated into the existing formats; how mixed media and traditional criticism can work together rather than in opposition. The ‘threat’ is mostly one of perception; the internet presents all voices as more or less equal, because they can all be read easily and for free. If a way can be found to emphasise the strengths and experience of different kinds of review and reviewer, then there is no reason why these various forms cannot productively co-exist – and professional reviewers keep their jobs.

One last comment from the panel section, which I found extremely bizarre, was Tim Supple’s assertion that the good reviewer should completely ignore ‘atmosphere’ (as, for example, on press nights), focussing instead entirely on the performance as object. Billington articulated something similar in his complaint that he finds the Globe a “distracting” venue. I entirely disagree with these comments. Atmosphere cannot be ignored, and theatre cannot be reviewed from within an imaginary, hermetically-sealed bubble. Atmosphere is part of the reviewer’s experience: if one is sitting at a comedy, and the audience are sitting stonily-faced throughout every attempted joke, that is inevitably going to affect the reviewer’s perception, consciously or subconsciously. Theatre is not necessarily a contained event on the stage, but a dialogue between performance and audience, most visibly at venues like the Globe but to some extent wherever theatre happens. I strongly believe that good reviewers should be discussing their experience of the theatrical event. I don’t mean, of course, that the reviewer should be reporting gossip or irrelevancies, and of course these should be ignored; but if something is happening in the theatre, or between the audience and the play, that is affecting the performance, then I don’t see a problem with bringing it into the discussion.

The seminar session was interesting for me; as one of the participants, I had of course seen all the papers in advance. I’d be interested to know how useful it was for the auditors, of whom there were pleasingly quite a few, who only had brief synopses to go on. I won’t go through all twelve papers, but just mention a few of the useful points that came up.

Ellie Collins added to the pro-blogging lobby with a timely and pragmatic look at the pros and cons of e-reviewing, praising the plurality of approaches that the medium allows in what she defined as a “post-consensus society”. The problems are in the lack of navigability and closure; but this last can be interpreted as a strength if we allow for responses to productions to continue developing indefinitely. Reviews are what shape a production’s afterlife, and the idea that that afterlife ends with the “official” review is restrictive. The paper tied in extremely neatly with Holland’s subsequent address, leaving the conference’s attitude towards blogging on a more positive note.

Two papers argued for closer attention in reviewing to specific aspects of practice. Jami Rogers gave an exciting paper that pointed out the deficiencies in the ways reviewers discuss acting, attacking lazy epithets and evaluative comments that fail to address what an actor actually did in order to give the general impression that the reviewer remarks upon. This is something that will have a direct impact on my own reviewing; while I do try to give description of action rather than brush off performances in general terms, it’s not something I’ve given a great deal of conscious thought to, which I hope to now remedy. Kate Burnett, meanwhile, discussed theatre design, demanding recognition for the work of designers rather than ceding all credit to directorial vision.

Steve Purcell wrote the paper closest to my own heart, attacking reviewers for policing the boundaries of what is considered to be “Shakespeare”. Particularly picking up on Billington’s earlier criticism of Kneehigh’s Cymbeline (which he considered to be unShakespearean), he discussed the inappropriateness of accusations of infidelity when applied to plays that are a) inherently unstable even in textual form and b) do not accept textual fidelity as an artistic concern. It’s a paper that will hopefully have use for my own PhD, which of course discusses historical conceptions of what Shakespeare actually is.

Alison Stewart’s paper persuasively argued for subjectivity in the review (hear hear), pointing out that no reviewer can meet the needs of all potential future researchers. This contrasted nicely with Kevin Quarmby’s calls for objectivity, demanding that the reviewer act as a conduit for their readers. I think the two can work well together; a cool, descriptive eye that remains the reviewer’s own, individual approach appears to meet the criteria of the reviews I prefer to read.

Finally, the question of comparative criticism, which Caroline Latta argued for the importance of. This, of course, is where the experience of professional critics is particularly important and invaluable. It is also the standard mode of academic reviewers, positioning the play within its performance context and comparing performers and productions to their lineage. I agree with the importance of this, while at the same time noting that it’s not something I do myself very much. I suppose I feel to an extent that there’s a danger of getting too bound up in the past and the history of a production, thereby losing something of the immediacy of the present – for of course, for many of the audience, they will be unaware of or at least unfamiliar with much of the performance history being contrasted with the present event. I’m also conscious that there are many forms of comparative criticism. Hamlet does not exist in an isolated history of Hamlets, but in a history of other theatre productions, in the context of its own season, in the director’s own repertory, in the current political and cultural climate and so on. These are just thoughts, but don’t invalidate the importance and usefulness of comparisons. The issue was raised repeatedly over the course of the day, and is to my mind the grounds upon which paid, professional critics should be articulating their own authority and justifying their paycheques.

I haven’t mentioned my own paper, but I was pleased with its reception and Caroline’s extremely generous questions on it. The paper was entitled “”What’s Past is Prologue”: Negotiating the Authority of Tense in Reviewing Shakespeare”, and made the argument that reviews should always be written in the present tense, in order to better express the liveness of the moment of performance and the position of the reviewer; my contention is that the moment of truth in a review is the moment of writing, as opposed to the moment of viewing. The tense question was secondary, though, to the issues I wanted to raise about what we consider the object of review actually is; I argued for reviewing single performances rather than entire productions runs, essentially supporting Alison’s arguments for embracing subjectivity by locating the reviewer’s experience of a particular moment in time.

I’ll wrap up there, but I was extremely pleased with and excited by this conference. It’s given me a great deal of food for thought, which I’m going to try and build into my own reviewing practice. It’s also, hopefully, raised similar questions for other critics and academics which will have wider implications; and the publication of the conference proceedings will no doubt speed things along. On a more personal note, it’s one of the first conferences at which I’ve felt completely confident in my own ability to express opinions and argue issues, which is a good boost coming into the new academic year.

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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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