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July 23, 2012

The Hollow Crown: Henry V @ BBC2

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It remains to Thea Sharrock to steer the BBC's Hollow Crown series to a dignified and lavish conclusion with Henry V, which brings Tom Hiddleston's young king to worldly maturity and sees the return of most of the actors whose parts have transcended individual films (although not York/Aumerle nor, curiously, Falstaff's Boy). As was the case with Richard Eyre's Henry IV films, this production is defined by its sincerity and seriousness, unfortunately to a fault. In its depiction of war, Sharrock steers away from politics and consequence to offer a more superficial overview of the war experience that concentrates in micro-close-up indiscriminately on the suffering of all individuals, taking the easy route of demonstrating that War Is Bad through the earnestly agonised faces and pathos-laden deaths of name characters, rather than critiquing the processes that created the situation in the first place.

That's not to say that there isn't a great deal to like about this film, particularly in the performances. Anton Lesser is a weary, quiet Exeter, rivetting in his tired glare at Jeremie Covillaut's Montjoy and a calm presence who stalks the edges of the battlefield and the king's chambers alike. Owen Teale is a serious-minded Fluellen, brusque but fair, and with a propensity to help his struggling underlings. Melanie Thierry and Geraldine Chaplin allow their dignity to dissolve into giggling during the French-speaking scene, and Lambert Wilson offers an austere reading of the King of France, framed by a huge faded tapestry (which the pedant in me thinks would probaby have been much more brightly coloured at the time, but I digress).

In this version of history, everyone is a human being and everyone is individually characterised. This means that we see on every face the pain of war, the slog and tiredness experienced whether by kings or the lowest footsoldier. It becomes somewhat relentless; Paul Ritter's Pistol sobs into his hands at the side of the battlefield, pulled up short by the carnage he sees; Fluellen dismounts from his horse to help a stumbling soldier through the mud while another soldier struggles to hold up a tattered St. George's flag; and the French nobles cradle their dying partners while promising to report back to the King. Most notably, Paterson Joseph's York is foregrounded early on as a particularly close friend of Henry V, picked out for special attention during the "band of brothers" speech and seen helping rescue the beleagured king on the battlefield in slow motion. His death occurs as he comes to the aid of the Boy, shot unawares by a French soldier who is subsequently shot by Exeter's man. York dies in the arms of the sobbing boy in a moment emblematic of the production's overall intentions - to emphasise war as the individual experience of tragedy.

Henry V

This is entirely valid as a reading but, as with Henry IV Part 2, it becomes rather monotonous, a montage of individual moments of sadness that don't coalesce in a coherent way. It looks and sounds stunning, but it doesn't offer much beyond the presentation of the material in a fairly superficial way. That is perhaps most true of the Chorus. John Hurt offers a clear, erudite reading of the speeches, but as a voiceover while scenes - the funeral of Henry V that opens the film, the sight of a majestic English ship crossing the channel - are fully visualised. Surely the purpose of the Chorus, however, is to evoke what cannot be realised, to articulate the performativity of the actors, rather than to act as the narration to literal depictions of events. The film's priorities are to emphasise grand speeches and the pain of war rather than engage with the play's more complex issues.

This is made apparent in the choice of cuts and interpretations. The opening involvement of the bishops in inciting Henry to war is cut to reduce their agency, and Henry's rationale for attacking France is accepted as just. The sequence of the traitors is entirely excised, preserving the English army as unfactionalised; a decision aided by the removal of the scene of the four captains. With the exception of Montjoy, the French get very little screen time other than what is necessary to establish them as opponents and imply the selfish motivations that allow Henry to make tough decisions. Most bizarrely, however, the killing of the boys is omitted, and Henry's decision to have the French prisoners killed comes as an outburst following the report of York's death.

Similarly, humour is mitigated at every turn. Any mention of leeks is studiously avoided, Falstaff's death is illustrated with a brief picture of a fading Simon Russell Beale, and the touching scene that remains between Julie Walters' Mistress Quickly and the other Eastcheap survivors is full of tears and serious recrimination, as well as a few laughs through tears. Bardolph's final situation is, however, played out at full length - York catches him running away with a crucifix, and Henry is brought to the tree where Bardolph has already been hanged, only to be greeted with a series of misty flashbacks of their prior connections. The fact that he is already dead, of course, relieves Henry of individual responsibility for his death, and thus Bardolph becomes simply another burden for the troubled king to bear.

Tom Hiddleston

Yet there is a great deal to love here. The battle scenes are extremely well done on the relatively small budget, drawing on Gladiator (a counterattack led from the trees by Fluellen), Braveheart (the massing soldiers) and Lord of the Rings (the storming of Harfleur smacks of Helm's Deep). The extreme cuts to the text allow the battles to contain their own miniature storylines and characteristics, from the boiling water poured on the English at Harfleur to the repeated digging-in and raising of defences at Agincourt. Sharrock's direction and emphasis on individual experience means that we see these battles through individual eyes, and Hiddleston is absolutely the right Henry for this approach. The two set-piece speeches are delivered naturally to small groups rather than as rhetorical announcements to an entire army. For "Once more unto the breach", he finds individual yeomen, including one cowering in panic next to the walls, and whispers his lines quietly to him, drawing the terrified soldier out of his foetal position with soothing blue eyes and calm words. "Band of brothers", meanwhile, takes the situation of the text literally and sees Henry speak as an individual to the small group of nobles (York, Westmorland, Erpingham, Exeter etc.) who are already in conversation, rather than opening up his promises to address the crowds. It's a distinctive and unusual arrangement of the speeches which works well in this context.

Hiddleston is a fine Henry V, troubled throughout by the pain of his soldiers and keen to engage with them. He's exemplary of the caring monarch, murmuring under his hood about how well Pistol's name suits him as the aggrieved soldier stomps away, and bursting into fury at Montjoy's last appearance. He is pious, spending considerable time on his knees either side of the battle, and charming in his encounter with Katherine. It's a solid, conventional reading of the king, but the camera allows Hiddleston to make the most of his facial expressions, emphasising the emotional reach in a way made more difficult on stage.

In an interesting final gambit, we see the face of the Boy who survived this version of the story come to Henry V's funeral and then, in a jump cut, transform into John Hurt, who wanders around an empty throne room clutching a tattered piece of an English flag. Interestingly, part of the penultimate line, "which oft our stage hath shown" is cut, presumably in honest reference to the fact that the BBC has not repeatedly shown the Henry VI trilogy. Yet the ethos of the series is disrupted in a final direct-to-camera address, asking the audience to accept the telling; followed by a historical message explaining that Henry died of dysentry. The shift to an odd docu-drama approach in the last moments fits oddly; it is the first time the audience is asked to accept a real king rather than a performed one. It's a moment which, again, sacrifices tonal consistency in favour of the quick emotional connection, the grown-up Boy gazing at the camera and asking the audience to remember them.

The Hollow Crown has created four accessible, straightforward Shakespeare films that are conservative in their readings, rich in production value and push the history plays as mood pieces, with individual emotion wrung out of every character. They will be hugely useful as teaching resources, and they are eminently watchable television. I wish the BBC had had the guts to do something more interesting with them though; make use of the format (Rupert Goold was the most inventive in this respect, but this was far more restrained technically than, say, his Macbeth) or take the opportunity to challenge the narratives of nationalism and conflict that were raised but not addressed in this series. The films are beautiful, but smack to me of Shakespeare to be seen and appreciated rather than to be engaged with or provoke conversation. While they are in many ways a resounding success, creating a Shakespeare that will reach the broadest possible audience and latch onto public mood broadly celebratory of individual achievement and ideas of the home nation in an Olympic year, it's perhaps also a missed opportunity for the exact same reasons.

June 13, 2012

Henry V (Theatre Delicatessen) @ Marylebone Gardens

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In the year of the London Olympics – and even more noticable in a week where England faced off against France in their opening match of the European Championships – it is perhaps unsurprising that the schedules are crowded with Henry V, including the productions by Propeller and the Globe as well as the BBC’s new screen version. The young company Theatre Delicatessen might have taken a risk in producing yet another version, but the company’s USP of unique, found performance spaces demanded attention, presenting into the bargain a fresh and enthusiastic take on the play.

Theatre Delicatessen work in collaboration with corporate partners to re-energise disused or unconventional spaces, in this case occupying and transforming Marylebone Gardens, the old BBC headquarters. We were met on arrival by a corporal who gathered audience members, called us to attention and criticised our sloppy salutes, and were then passed to a private who led us down back corridors and stairwells, past bunks and uniform stores, into a large bunker environment where squaddies were already sat at a long table playing cards, bunks decorated with photographs lined the walls and sandbags lay scattered. A radio room burbled sections of 1 Henry IV as if news reports; and medical bays and an altar indicated other areas of an army barracks. In this low-ceilinged, dimly lit room, the claustrophobia of the waiting room of war was evocatively recreated, aided by the wonderful soundscape provided by Fergus Waldron and The Lab Collective, where explosions and planes sounded convincingly overhead and music subtly manipulated tone.

The immersiveness of the environment was not total. The charade of the audience’s ‘role’ within proceedings was limited to the pre-show and interval (“you have 15 minutes mess time”), but beyond the fact that audience members were sat comfortably on sandbags or bunks, the performance itself was functionally traverse. Director Roland Smith used the space well, creating multiple smaller areas within the bunker and moving fluidly between scenes. The small office rooms leading off from the main space allowed commanders to emerge at will and, in one powerful instance, served as a makeshift execution room for a French prisoner, a flash seen through a narrow window as gunshots were fired. A large spiral staircase in the centre of the space gave the impression of higher levels, which lent the battle scenes in particular a vulnerable feel – soldiers ran up screaming into the unknown, and the medics left behind listened in terror as explosions grew louder. The ceiling opened up at one end of the room, allowing the company to stage a French propaganda drop with a deafening roar of engines followed by a deluge of anti-English pamphlets falling from the sky; and later, a helicopter was waved down to collect the French princess. The sense of connected spaces usefully turned the events of the play into a slice-of-life representation, a perspective on war rather than its entirety.

If the environment did not quite offer the soldiers-eye view for the audience that the company seemed to want, it did offer intimacy, which became crucial. Zimmy Ryan’s Boy, in particular, built up a close relationship with the audience over successive scenes, and the decision to turn the Boy into a medic left behind while the rest of the soldiers rushed off to battle added further pathos to his execution by two hooded French advance soldiers who crept into the room. The Boy was also responsible for attempting to heal a wounded French soldier, who turned out to be Pistol’s easy capture, the latter pinning down the confused man as he cried out on his gurney. The fact that the bunker best represented itself in these scenes (as opposed to its refiguring elsewhere as tavern, field of battle, court etc.) rendered these scenes the production’s most successful, building up a sense of the soldier as individual, cut off through the messy practicalities of war.

This personal perspective was the production’s priority, made explicit in a moving programme note by Smith that spoke of one of his closest friends, killed in conflict while fighting for peace. What this did mean was that the production was more unproblematically nationalistic than many others. While the Eastcheap crew were drunken louts (increasingly a standard decision), the production remained very firmly on the side of the English, keeping antagonism alive between the two armies at all times and refusing to dwell on French losses, or to problematise Henry’s wooing of Katherine. The emphasis here was on the suffering of the individual soldier caused by war, but didn’t challenge the necessity of that war or the English claims to France.

The cuts primarily reflected this simplification of the play’s issues with nationalism. Gone were Macmorris and Jamy; gone too, more surprisingly, was Fluellen and Pistol’s final encounter as well as the bulk of Fluellen’s argument with Williams. The occlusion of the Welsh, Scottish and Irish narratives was surprising to me, but it did help maintain the moral coherence of the English army. Similarly, Bardolph’s execution was passed over quickly, whereas the execution of the traitors was played out in full. The cuts allowed Philip Desmueles’s Henry freedom to be a passionate and honest king, whose variation was less between tyranny and camaraderie than it was between professionalism and honesty; this was a king led by his heart, but able to manage his facial expressions and reserve as required.

The tensions throughout were well-maintained. Henry and Alexander Guiney’s Montjoy loathed each other from first sight, and Henry gave Montjoy a tennis ball rather than a purse as labour for his pains. Similarly, Neil Connolly’s Governor of Harfleur had to tea his hand away from Henry’s firm grip, storming off in disgust at the loss of his town. More of the tensions came out in the Eastcheap crowd, however, where Connolly’s Nym and Liam Smith’s Pistol came to early blows over Margaret-Ann Bain’s chavvy Hostess, who swigged from a can of special brew before using it as a vase for the flowers offered by Nym. The setting was of Falk.lands-era warfare; thus, the civilians captured something of that period’s St. George’s flag-waving nationalism, while the soldiers wore berets and camouflage. In this setting, the careful management of the traitors and of the common men was particularly obvious, foregrounding a sense of Henry’s absolute authority.

The verse speaking was the production’s disappointment, despite some standout performances; Christopher Tester’s Archbishop of Canterbury, for example, was beautifully articulate, while Liam Smith offered a quiet, dignified French King. Too much was thrown away in favour of conversational accessibility, however; Guiney’s Chorus appeared to be speaking prose rather than verse, setting the scene well but reducing the scenes to their functional rather than rhetorical value.

Yet there was much else to enjoy. The wooing scene between Henry and Laura Martin-Simpson’s Katherine reminded me for the first time ever of Kate and Petruchio’s initial negotiations, particularly as Katherine bit Henry’s tongue as they shared their first (unfashionable) kiss. This lively exchange established a sense of the union of the countries as something desirable for both sides, yet allowed Katherine sufficient agency to dictate her own terms. Elsewhere, Henry’s execution of the traitors prompted a long, specific engagement with Tester’s Scroop, who stood central on the stage while the other traitors kneeled and simply wept as Henry outlined his crimes at great length.

Tester’s excellent Fluellen provided the comic relief, particularly in his forced reconciliation with Chris Polick’s Michael Williams, as Henry forced the two of them to shake hands. The two French women (Martin-Simpson and Jessica Guise as Alice) shared this role in their two brief scenes, but the comedy remained largely contained in favour of celebration of Henry’s victories.

The production was overlong, even with the cuts, yet the fascinating use of space and the thoroughly entertaining performances made for an enjoyable Henry V. I would have liked to have seen a more immersive use made of the set and audience, and a clearer sense of what the production itself was trying to say. Certainly, the Chorus’s final gesture towards the Henry VI trilogy suggested that there was at least a sense of patriotism and national pride being undermined, but this was deferred until after the event as the Chorus cleared the stage, rather than interrupting Henry’s victory. Yet while the play itself may have been partly responsible for maintaining certain attitudes, the space acted as a point of destabilisation of meaning, acting to alert us to our own level of engagement and forcing response. In that sense, this remained an important Henry V.

May 07, 2012

Henry V (Propeller) @ The Belgrade Theatre, Coventry

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Propeller's ability to create community remains unsurpassed. Raising money for charity during the interval of last night's Henry V, their rousing rendition of "The Wild Rover" was bolstered by a good hundred audience members, gathered in a cramped foyer space around a couple of acoustic instruments. The camaraderie between audience and actors - most dressed at this point as dishevelled soldiers - continued into the auditorium following the interval, cast chatting with audience members in the aisles and from the stage. Once more, as the company's own subtitle proclaims, we were "in the company of men". This was no diversion from the play, though, but fundamental to a production that saw comradeship as being at the heart of Henry V.

The play opened with a band of soldiers marching through the audience, singing. Reaching the stage, they began relaxing and unpacking their bags, until one of them uncovered a crown. Unwinding their tired bodies, they began addressing the lines of the opening Chorus to the audience, sharing the speech among the whole company. This became a recurring motif of the production, the actors always breaking out of character and delivering the Chorus in their own voices. The suggestion throughout was that this was the soldiers' story, perhaps even that promised by their King in the Agincourt speech. As a story retold and reperformed, it became also timeless; every war from Agincourt itself to the Normandy beaches to the modern theatre of war was evoked as the story unfolded.

A strong streak of nationalism ran through the play, though without the heavy-handed critique of many previous productions of the play. A St. George's flag flew high above the pieces of scaffolding that filled the stage, and scene changes were filled with snatches of soldier songs and anthems. This was particularly important when it bled into the Eastcheap section (conflated into one scene, with any reference to Falstaff omitted), opening as it did with Bardolph (Gary Shelford) leading football chants and downing pints. The rabble of this scene including a mohican-wearing Nym (Finn Hanlon), Vince Leigh's Pistol in football shirt and broken teeth, and Tony Bell as Mistress Quickly in a wedding dress, the two emerging straight from their marriage. The characters were established as full of swagger, shouting and fighting with little sense. The unthinking cruelty of the scene came through in a rather sad moment as the line of soldiers shuffled out past Mistress Quickly, one by one laughing in her face rather than kissing her or pretending to retch. Yet a tenderness lay under the characters, particularly as Pistol and his wife exchanged a tacky, light-up red heart as a pledge of love.

The treatment of nationalism was not complex, and omitted the scene of the four captains, allowing a simple opposition between England and France to be set up. While Nicholas Asbury's much-maligned Montjoy appeared with a flick of his scarf and affected gestures on each occasion, the remainder of the French were trenchcoated, formal and arrogant, formidable if overconfident enemies rather than foolish fops. Gunnar Cauthery's blustering Dauphin acted nonchalant but concealed a deep-rooted rage, which became manifest on the arrival of Chris Myles's Exeter at the French court. Meanwhile John Dougall gave a dignified performance as an elderly, tired and failing French King, no match for the rather smug Henry.

Dugald Bruce-Lockhart first appeared in full military dress as Henry, which he resumed at the end. This confident, fluent hero-king gave the impression of experience, a calculating and composed man rather than a youngster trying to find his way. While I find Bruce-Lockhart a compelling physical actor, I was disappointed by his lack of vocal range - lines were delivered in a quizzical, light tone, working well for more thoughtful scenes but lacking power in the heat of battle. What came across clearly, however, was that this was a king with a plan, unafraid to take difficult decisions. The production made no effort to point up the prior connection between Henry and the Eastcheap crowd, but Bardolph's execution was played out onstage (Exeter snapping his neck on top of the scaffold) and his broken body left onstage for Henry to gaze at, after voicing his agreement directly to Pistol. The interval closed on the image of Henry looking up at Bardolph, the latter cast clearly as a victim.

The earlier ousting of the traitors played as expected, with the added menace of a group of soldiers waiting to grab Cambridge, Scroop and Grey as soon as they had read the dossiers handed to them by Henry. The presence of anonymous soldiers onstage throughout the play, whether playing music or silently watching, acted as a reminder that this was their story, and Henry's continual acknowledgement of the common men following him allowed the 'band of brothers' mentality to be sustained throughout, while also being problematised by his easy orders to kill. Fascinatingly, Pistol became the continual foil to Henry, pointing up the human cost of what was being asked of the men. After a comic but brutally violent scene with Monsieur Le Fer (the excellent Dominic Thorburn, who in minor parts in both this and The Winter's Tale really distinguished himself vocally), Pistol dragged him onstage in time for Henry's order for the soldiers to kill their prisoners. An appalled and shaking Pistol was forced to stand over Le Fey while other men held him down and act out the slitting of his throat.

The play's violence was played remotely - actors kicked or punched punchbags, or cut open bags of fake blood, while victims reacted elsewhere on the stage. This allowed for the violence to be imaginatively extreme without looking restrained, as in the image of the Boy covered in stage blood but never actually touched. Cannon, gunfire and smoke created a suitably warlike environment, with some wonderful physical activity during Chorus scenes as the company recreated the D-Day landings and wielded weapons. The panting group of men exhorted on by Henry - now stripped to vest and dogtags, and bloodied - drew strength from his words. In many ways this was a relatively straight adaptation, acknowledging the importance of male bonds in a time of war. The Williams/Bates scene, while well acted, was surprisingly uncontroversial, and its resolution accepted happily and unproblematically by Ben Allen's Williams, who clutched his bag of gold with no small pleasure.

Contrasting with this was the experience of the play's women. The second half began with a comic take on the French scene, with a heavily made-up Karl Davies sitting in a bathtub while Chris Myles's Alice - in military skirt and beret - helped her wash. A group of soldiers in sunglasses sat or knelt around the bath, tutting when she got words wrong and holding up mirrors for her removal. The coquettish and flirtatious private Katherine contrasted with the more demure version presented in public in the final scene, which Bruce-Lockhart handled exceptionally. Katherine offered a perfect mix of stand-offishness and half-smiles, and the scene culminated in a sweet sequence as the two sat together on an altar and Henry hopped along it to sit closer to her.

Yet while the play's patriotism and romance plot followed familiar lines, the critique beneath remained the play's true heart. After his ruthless beating by Tony Bell's brusque Fluellen (and the very real eating of a raw leek), Pistol complained quietly of the death of Nym and Bardolph, before pulling out the plastic heart of the dead Doll, to calls of sympathy from the audience. More moving, however, was the reaction to the reading of the dead. Henry's soldiers initially reacted with shouts of pleasure to the number of the French dead before, under instruction, listening with respect to the names of the French. The English dead were heard with more severity, the soldiers holding tightly onto one another before releasing with relief at so short a list and falling to their knees. However, Asbury's Montjoy was kept onstage for the entire time, and his initial discomfort collapsed into open sobbing over the course of the speeches in the play's most moving sequence. The experience of one Frenchman threw into relief the posturing of the English, not invalidating either experience but suggesting rather a division in the understanding of loss.

The play's end saw Henry kneeling with Katherine, then standing, handing his crown to her and walking out. As the company began the Epilogue, the crown was placed on the altar which became a coffin, a lament for the now-absent King. The fact that this company has, of course, already performed Rose Rage and Richard III made sense of the Chorus's point that it has already shown the loss caused - in this case, in its abattoir-set productions that took the dissociated violence of this production and created something even more brutal. It was a sobering end to a rich and thoroughly entertaining performance.

July 03, 2008

Regional Schools Celebration @ The Courtyard Theatre

On Monday, the Courtyard Theatre hosted the Regional Schools Celebration, a culmination of sorts of the first phase of the RSC's Stand Up for Shakespeare campaign. Featuring a full programme of nine 25 minute playlets by school groups ranging from primary to 6th form, interspersed with awards ceremonies and talking heads, the event was a large-scale public celebration of the work the RSC are doing in schools across the country.

Stand Up for Shakespeare

I wasn't going to write a blog about this event, much less a review, as I thought it would be inappropriate given the nature of the event. However, I haven't been able to get some of the playlets out of my head. The ideas and work that went into them were in several cases extremely interesting, and the work deserved attention (as Michael Coveneyagrees on his blog). Sadly I was only able to stay for the morning, but I thought I would include a breakdown of what I saw as, particularly when you consider the age of the kids, there was stuff here that I would really like to remember.

The day itself was compered by Hardeep Singh Kohli, with contributions in the morning from both Michael Boyd and Michelle Gomez - a nice gesture, having the Artistic Director and current leading actor in attendance. Hardeep himself did a solid job of hosting, with a whole selection of terrible puns that were primarily designed to cover the changes between casts. Nonetheless, he seemed to have a genuine enthusiasm for the event, and the atmosphere in the Courtyard was good throughout.

Hardeep Singh Kohli
Hardeep Singh Kohli

Julius Caesar by Queen's Park Primary, West Kilburn, London

The first show began with the theatre being plunged into darkness. A loud epic soundtrack boomed out, while the children tiptoed onto the stage from various sides, shining torches in their faces and onto the audience before gathering in the centre and becoming the conspirators of Caesar. Seeing school drama benefit from the technical capabilities of the RSC's main house was one of the pleasures of the day, though this was the only production to achieve such a startling effect from it. The production tapped into ideas both of surveillance and of street violence; opening with the conspirators and the murder, two 'newsreaders' (stood on the side balconies) then took over the reporting of the event through a series of news-style flashbacks and vox pops with dissatisfied Romans. A focus on the gullible doggedness of the crowd to believe whoever was talking made the orations scene particularly interesting, the crowd caring passionately about the last thing that was spoken. To this end, the playlet captured this school's fascination with the power of propaganda, which ultimately destroyed everyone. A fascinating insight into the contemporary resonances which the staff and students had found in the play, and also a particularly impressive performance from the young girl playing Brutus. Throughout the day I was impressed at how well the young people held the Courtyard stage, but Brutus in this play was superb, clear and powerful all the way.

Henry V - In Love and War by Fred Longworth School, Atherton, Manchester

The most sophisticated of the five plays, and practically deserving of a full review of its own. Fred Longworth's retelling of Henry V was an innovative and fascinating one that brought several original ideas to the text. It had been trimmed down from an hour long, but in this 25 minute version we caught a glimpse of the excellent work that had gone into it. Taking a slant that focussed on issues of love and marriage, this production centred Katherine, playing her scenes almost in full. Adding in dialogue from Romeo and Juliet, a new narrative was created that saw the King of France commanding his daughter to prepare for marriage with Henry in case of defeat, much to her disgust and panic. To this end, in a genius scene, her French lesson became a comically violent preparation, with her miming how she was going to use her fingers, nails and 'bilbows' to punch, scratch, poke and gut her 'enemy'. In the final scene, in another excellent decision, Henry mixed Shakespearean dialogue with contemporary phrases to emphasise the 'plainness' of his speech, eventually winning her over through her directness. The Chorus was played by three young actresses who were all extremely articulate verse-speakers, splitting the lines between them and throwing a tennis ball to various actors in order to start the scenes. I've heard good Choruses before, but for some reason the strong Manc accents worked perfectly with the verse, and were definitely the day's best vocal performances. I have no hesitation in saying that, even as abbreviated as it was, this was better than some of, say, the drama school performances in the Complete Works. Excellent work.

Romeo and Juliet - Friendship Never Dies by Churchill Gardens Primary, Westminster, London

This version of Romeo, performed by a group of very young children, drew its power from the knowledge that the children go to school in a particularly rough part of East London (according to Hardeep, anyway) that suffers badly from knife and gang culture. Almost entirely ignoring the romance aspects of the play, this production stripped Romeo down to its streetfighting, finding in it a message about retribution and the culture of respect that the children, despite their age, clearly knew all too well. Here, all the children came on stage to shout the play's early lines at each other in staged violence, while at the Capulet's Ball they danced to modern R&B (the guest list that Peter carried included such names as Beyonce and Rhiannon). After the ball, though, the narrative interestingly switched to Tybalt, stewing in his bedroom at the insult and disrespect that Romeo had paid him by coming to the party. Other actors voiced his thoughts while he paced back and forth. The play then skipped forward to the climactic duel, with Tybalt killing Mercutio and Romeo Tybalt, with plenty of focus on the young Romeo's decision to take his knife and continue the cycle of violence. The play's closing image, then, was of the Prince ordering Romeo to be dragged off, screaming, to prison while Juliet tried to follow him and was held back. No tragic deaths here, simply the inevitable - and very modern - consequences of a life of violence. Shocking in its bleakness and in the young children's grasp of matters of life and death, this was both disturbing and vital, Shakespeare used for exploring issues of monumental impact.

Mr Mac and the Ruler Army by Milton Abbot Primary, Devon

The final two productions didn't have the same impact, but were still entertaining and provided good comedy value. Milton Abbot School translated Macbeth to a primary school, "Dunsin Lane", with Mr. Duncan as the Headmaster, Mr. Mack and Mrs. Banks as teachers and a chorus of garishly made-up dinnerladies as the witches. The children obviously had great fun contemporising the play, with Duncan's murder becoming his expulsion for helping children cheat (deviously engineered by Mack), while Mack's tyranny was shown through his introduction of a 12 hour schoolday and no playtime. The contemporising eventually fell apart (Mr. Duff and Mr. Mack settled their differences through, erm, a sword fight!),  but it remained an entertaining and often funny take on Macbeth.

Supernatural in Shakespeare by Fred Nicholson School, Norfolk

By far the most bizarre of the morning's productions, Fred Nicholson (a school with a particular focus on students with special needs) took the Mechanicals of A Midsummer Night's Dream and brought them onto the Jeremy Kyle Show in an effort to resolve the differences and squabbles caused by Bottom always taking the best parts for himself. This was a highly unusual idea, of course, but one which allowed them to explore ideas of bullying in a contemporary context. Heavily reliant on audience participation, the boys did a good job of encouraging audience participation through cheering and booing. Through the middle of this skipped Puck, who played tricks on the young actors throughout. Regardless of the content, it was clear that a great deal of work and creative thought had gone into this playlet and, as with all the groups performing, the students seemed to have developed themselves through the act of rehearsing and performing as well as learning their Shakespeare, and that was the most important thing.

I couldn't stay for the afternoon, but I was sorry to leave. I won't lie, I expected that the day would be something of a chore, but I was very pleased to be proved wrong. The work done by the young people was eminently watchable and I was surprised at how enjoyable the day was. I'm not the right person to comment on the RSC's education strategy, on the methodologies being employed or the manifesto that "Stand Up for Shakespeare" presents, but the day showed a large group of children who had got a great deal out of exploring Shakespeare practically, and that can't be bad.

March 03, 2008

Henry V @ The Courtyard Theatre: Highlights

It’s now Monday morning and I’ve seen all eight. I’m knackered, but happy- it’s been a very good week! So now catching up on some blogging…..

Henry V is an excellent centrepiece when seeing the productions in chronological order. It’s an enormous production that embraces the epic, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Here are my highlights:

  • Geoffrey Streatfeild took a well-deserved solo bow after an excellent performance. He’s really grown on me as an actor over the last two years, and his Henry was striking. Key moments included his listing of the terrors that he would visit on the French, with his own face falling in horror at the words coming out of his mouth. His angry sobbing as he cradled Wela Frasier’s dead Boy was moving, and his anger when confronting the conspirators was tinged with sadness at their betrayal. Yet his manicness in the more upbeat scenes, particularly running around the stage almost madly in the wooing, contrasted nicely.
  • Lots of improvements from the first time round. The cage that once descended in the opening scene had been cut, and the bringing on of coffins at the end of Act 4 was now done by the French, dragging on their bodies while the English sang a hymn. It made sense and meant the scene change was far less clumsy.
  • Alexia Healy brought an element of sexual awareness to Katherine, mischievously almost asking how to say ‘breasts’ in English when being tutored, and the wooing scene with Henry was very sexy. The interplay between Kate and Alice (Hannah Barrie) was also funny, Kate barking at Alice’s constant corrections and Alice glancing over Henry’s shoulder as he wooed her mistress.
  • Keith Talbot, despite this being his play off, cameoed as Talbot during the Agincourt scene. Presumably he had little better to do, but it was a very nice link to 1 Henry VI. Henry does mention Talbot in his speeches, and to see him in the war gave some background to the stories of his heroics in the next play. It also made Bartlett the only actor to appear in all eight plays – congratulations!
  • Fluellen, played with Jonathan Slinger’s usual gusto, had a particularly interesting function. The devastation after the murder of the boys was palpable, the nobles lying around the stage in various forms of grief, and victory seemed hollow. It was here that Fluellen began his nationalistic comment on the Welsh, a rude note in the middle of such solemnity, but his infectious rambling caused the bloodstained nobles to finally laugh. Fluellen provided relief not only for the audience but for the English army, providing a way for the production to move from the pathos of Henry cradling the Boy to the acceptance of victory without belittling either. Henry’s own jokes had a similar effect, particularly in keeping his brothers (Chris McGill and Luke Neal) in good spirits.
  • Geoffrey Freshwater gave a very impressive speech as the Archbishop, reeling off name after name, event after event. Last time he made a massive fluff of the lines; this time, it became awe-inspiring and very funny. He received an impromptu round of applause once he finished!
  • I was also struck by Nick Asbury as Pistol in this performance, who swaggered with his usual panache but also brought a more moving quality to the role, a glimpse into the man behind the mannerisms. Trying to persuade Fluellen to intervene on Bardolph’s behalf, he was devastated at the lack of support, and there were tears in his eyes after the funny but violent leek-eating scene as he quietly told us of Mistress Quickly’s death.
  • The French were all good. Chuk Iwuji made a great impact as Montjoy, Antony Bunsee (now back on his trapeze: when I last saw the production, he was always ground-based) brought a gravitas to the French airiness (particularly funny as he involuntarily joined in the horse jokes and groaned “Oh God”) and John Mackay’s Dauphin was a delight, stamping petulantly as he was kept back from the front line.
  • Plenty of other good performances too. Rob Carroll as MacMorris, Keith Dunphy as Nym, Sandy Neilson as the King of France and Forbes Masson as an excellent Chorus all stood out in a production that really showed off the ensemble’s strengths.

The aesthetic of this central production was rivetting, particularly in Boyd’s concept of the French hanging from the rafters while the English dug pits, and the fight scene beginning with the English emerging upwards towards the French spun the whole theatre on its head. What was last year a good production has really become great.

November 01, 2007

Henry V @ The Courtyard Theatre

The final hurdle! The RSC Histories project is finally trundling to an end with the opening of Henry V, the eighth and final production in the sequence. It’s hard not to have high expectations. Despite a couple of blips (particularly 1 Henry IV) the project has been a resounding success, the ensemble producing some wonderful moments of theatre.

Word had reached me of this production clocking in at almost four hours long on its opening night, which was somewhat scary. In the event they managed to keep it down to three and a half very packed hours: big fight scenes, a frankly ludicrous amount of ropework and midair scenes, the largest set change of the octology and a cast clearly going for broke. Big in every sense of the word, the production did not disappoint on the epic front.

The visually beautiful scenes in the French camp were performed almost entirely from trapezes, with John Mackay’s Dauphin and Chuk Iwuji’s excellent Montjoy swinging by their legs as Forbes Masson’s Chorus played delicate piano from a suspended baby grand. Henry’s famous “Once more unto the breach” speech was announced with a deafening explosion and the throwing open of all the stage’s metal trapdoors, leaving the audience completely shaken, and the final battle saw an elegant display of ropes and ladders covered in ribbons that were fired across the entire auditorium, covering audience and actors.

Yet the visuals, consistently impressive, occasionally felt token, or at the very least not very well justified. The huge cage used to imprison Falstaff and his cronies at the end of Henry IV Part 2 descended again at the start to trap the Archbishop in a tableaux that saw him separated both from the King and his co-conspirators. Later, and more troublesome, a whole new level of decking was built on top of the coffins of the dead of the war- an interesting idea in that it showed the rest of events happening on the foundation of war, but no use was made of the new staging other than people standing on it, and the scene change to create it was very long and clunky, a real mess.

Staging aside, the performances were largely very good, and it’s rewarding for those of us who have seen the ensemble develop over eight plays to see the actors return in some cases to the roles they played in Henry VI Part I – Burgundy, the Dauphin and Exeter to name some.

Geoffrey Streatfeild was very good as the young king, though never dominating the play. This was not an actor-led production, which worked favourably for Streatfeild, who was at his best when reciting those famous speeches almost as afterthoughts on the battlefield. The St. Crispins day speech began before one had even noticed, and allowed Streatfeild to build momentum, capturing our attention just as he captured his army’s.

The human stories of the underdogs were given plenty of time, with Nick Asbury’s Pistol linking the two groups. The mini-tragedy of the Eastcheap crowd had some poignancy- Asbury’s revelation of his wife’s death, the melancholy discussion of Falstaff’s life, Wela Frasier’s Boy showing his nerves alone in the war, the hanging of Nym and Bardolph and Henry’s final cradling of the Boy’s body on the battlefield all struck a chord, their story evoking a real sadness against the big screen backdrop of the main action. Parallel to this ran the soldiers, in particular Jonathan Slinger’s Fluellen, as cocky as any of Slinger’s creations and very funny. In his final appearance though, punching Pistol in the nose and forcefeeding him leeks, the lines of humour and horror were blurred slightly in an uncomfortable scene of physical abuse, only relieved by Slinger resorting to whacking Pistol with the leeks Basil Fawlty-style.

Interestingly, the theatre was packed out with school groups, which drew to my attention that this production, of all eight, was the one with least references to the others. There were occasional moments, such as Henry and the footsoldier squaring up to each other after the gauntlet episode in a manner reminiscent of their earlier performances as Hal and Hotspur, but there were no ghosts, no funereal music and very few moments of inspired cross-casting. Not something that you need for a production that, after all, should be coherent in and of itself, but it struck me as a shame that the final production of the eight is the one that felt least a part of the sequence. A small gripe though. It was a solid production and a fitting end to what has been a very good couple of years. Role on February for all eight in sequence!

March 25, 2007

Before the Bardathon

As we enter the final week of my year-long project, I’m going to be posting a few retrospective entries in addition to the final couple of reviews. First up, I thought for interest I’d mention my PREVIOUS Shakespeare theatre-going.

I haven’t been attending the theatre as long as many people think. Being a Northerner born-and-bred, and not having a lot of money at that, my theatregoing ability was severely restricted until I started university five and a half years ago. Even since then, it’s only been a couple of years since I really discovered Stratford and started going regularly, and my experience of Shakespearean performance in London is also somewhat limited. What I HAVE done, however, is read and study performance history extensively, which has helped me catch up in no small part on the productions I’ve missed. In addition, I’ve watched pretty much every screen production I can get my hands on.

So, before the Complete Works, what have I seen? A good few productions still, though my memory of them fails in several places. For interest, then, here’s what I have seen:

AS YOU LIKE IT (RSC 2005, dir. Dominic Cooke, at the RST)

Aside from a big tree, a very VERY dull production of ‘As You Like It’ by Dominic Cooke. Some nice moments, but from the Circle the production died a slow and painful death in the second act, which was far longer than the first, and simple wasn’t funny apart from Paul Chahidi’s Touchstone.

THE COMEDY OF ERRORS (RSC 2005, dir. Nancy Meckler, at the RST)

Hysterical and highly acclaimed, as well as introducing me to the talents of Forbes Masson and Jonathan Slinger as the Dromios. Fast, funny and exactly how an ‘Errors’ should be.

HAMLET (RSC 2004, dir. Michael Boyd, at the RST)

I don’t remember much of this, apart from a few single moments. I do remember, however, Toby Stephens’ Hamlet being pretty damned good!

HENRY V (WUDS 2002 at Warwick Arts Centre Studio)

A student production- very low budget, but lively and, particularly in the memorable scenes involving the four soldiers of different nationalities, quite funny too. An all-female cast was the main innovation.

KING JOHN (RSC 2001, dir. Gregory Doran, at the Swan)

Memorable mostly for a spectacular fall from the upper balcony for Arthur, and for the spectacular use of flags and symbols. Generally a very good production, though I enjoyed the 2006 production better.

JULIUS CAESAR (WUDS 2002/3? at Warwick Arts Centre Theatre)

Notable for being the last (I believe) non-musical student production to be staged in the main theatre at Warwick Arts Centre. Solid performances all round, a good use of stage space and innovative use of hand-held cameras for the war scenes made this a very interesting production.

MACBETH (Theatre Babel 2002?, at Warwick Arts Centre Theatre)

Not the greatest ‘Macbeth’, but a fantastic set of dangling swords that descended to ground level and were a constant reminder of the ever-present threat.

MACBETH (RSC 2004, dir. Dominic Cooke, at the RST)

Bizarrely, all I can remember of this production is the England scene, particularly Clive Wood’s Macduff. I seem to remember enjoying it, however.

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM (RSC 2005, dir. Gregory Doran, at the RST)

Truly magical, and only bettered by Tim Supple’s Indian ‘Dream’. Spectacular use of scenery, puppets and physical movement made this a true joy to watch, along with Malcolm Storry’s excellent Bottom and yet another hysterical performance by Paul Chahidi as Quince. The ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ will remain with me forever.

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM (RSC, 2006, at Warwick Arts Centre)

I can’t find anything anywhere about this event, which was performed for one night only at Warwick Arts Centre as part of a tour. Part concert, part performance, it saw a major orchestra performing Mendelssohn’s ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’, while RSC actors performed the play between the beautiful score. While necessarily heavily limited by a tiny stage space and the concert format, this was a very fun version of the play, with excellent conflict between the lovers in particular and a superb orchestra playing the most famous Shakespearean music there is. Unfortunately, the evening was coloured by the fact my back collapsed and I had to be taken home by an ambulance afterwards…...

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING (WUDS 2004?, dir. Ben Fowler, at Warwick Arts Centre Studio)

An interesting ‘Much Ado’, with spectacularly staged overhearing scenes and some interesting things to say about the play. Variable performances, but overall an interesting production.

OTHELLO (Cheek By Jowl 2004, dir. Declan Donnellan, at Riverside Studios London)

One of those divisive productions which people either loved or hated. Seeing it in traverse in London helped, I believe, but still I disliked the slow-talking Iago who seemed to have little control over his actions. However, the cast in general were excellent and the brutal murder of Desdemona, picking her up by the neck, was truly shocking.

SIR THOMAS MORE (RSC 2005, dir. Robert Delamere, at the Swan)

A highly enjoyable production that first introduced me to Nigel Cooke, who was similarly excellent in ‘Pericles’ and ‘A Winter’s Tale’ this season. Violent and exciting, a production which made a very strong case for the increased study in the theatre of this play.

THE TAMING OF THE SHREW (RSC Touring Company 2000, dir. Lindsay Posner, at Epic Leisure Centre, Ellesmere Port)

A fascinating induction, setting the play in modern day with Sly surfing for porn on the internet and eventually stumbling across an online video of the play. After that, a very funny production that still stays in the mind despite the relatively long time since and my unfamiliarity with it. Still the only RSC touring production I’ve seen.

THE TEMPEST (Shakespeare’s Globe 2000, dir. Lenka Udovicki, at the Globe)

My only experience of the Globe, and an interesting production- with a memorably ethereal Ariel who left the auditorium through the audience, a violent Caliban who kept the crowd laughing with his constant swearing at the overhead planes, and Vanessa Redgrave as an interesting Prospero.

TWELFTH NIGHT (RSC 2005, dir. Michael Boyd, at the RST)

I remember much favourable about this production, mostly the comedians- Forbes Masson, Andrew Mackay and Clive Wood winding up Richard Cordery’s Malvolio to perfection, before going on to greater things in the History plays this year. However, I hated this at the time- overall it was sloppy and dull, with awful performances from Viola, Olivia and Sebastian in particular. Lots of interest, lots of style, but very few laughs and an ultimately dull reading.

THE TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA (RSC 1998, dir. Edward Hall, at the Swan)

And finally, the first Shakespeare I ever saw. This picture is the only bit I really remember- a very funny Crab and Launce, who stay in my mind over nine years later. The Swan has remained one of my favourite theatres over the years too, and it’s nice to think back this far, to the start of my RSC viewing, and still be able to recall little things about a play.

February 04, 2007

Henry V @ The Swan Theatre

The thinking about this play began way back in November, when Pippo Delbono, an Italian theatre practitioner who has won awards for his experimental community style, came to Stratford-upon-Avon to audition young actors to take part in ‘Henry V’, and also to give a talk. Entitled ‘Tales Of June’, it’s probably the biggest event I didn’t manage to attend (but it wasn’t a play, so it doesn’t count in the Complete Works!). There, I am told, he explained much of his style and the way he works.

Pippo Delbono

The last three days saw the fruition of the project premiere in The Swan. Pippo and two other actors combined with a 25-strong cast of local young actors (plus a couple of his own company) to create an unusual and highly effective piece of work based on ‘Henry V’. I say based on, for this was not the play as appears on paper. Taking lengthy extracts from the text and rearranging them, this was a piece of theatre about war- the motivations, the fear, the cost and the changes it effects in participants. Much of the storytelling was through movement and visual motifs, moments of surrealism and impressions deliberately made vague. Coupled with the Italian language (surtitles were immensely useful, helping the English audience keep track of a text which jumped about in time), this was not a production for the faint-hearted, but there were treasures therein.

Henry himself was a beer-drinking, overweight slob, awakened from his stupor by calls to shake off his dissolute youth. Another actor played a composite “Friend Of The King”, and the central plot, such as it was, followed the relationship between the two. The Friend progressed from scrubbing the bare floor to being decked in leather coat and leading the battle to finally announcing victory wihle teetering on crutches and a sole remaining leg. Along the way the two engaged in an emotional journey, dealing with the fear caused by seemingly impossible odds, the grittiness of battle and mourning over the bloodshed. The Friend in particular lost his innocence through battle, while Henry started and finished with the same peculiar dance, celebrating his victory in typically loutish style.

These pictures from the internet show conceptual art detailing the look of two characters:

Conceptual art of The Horse

Conceptual art of The Friend

The highlight of the play for me was the third actor, playing “The French”. A foppish man in a suit, with a gang of sycophantic followers laughing at his every word, The French occupied a world of affectation sullied by the atrocities that then commenced. Immediately unlikable but very funny, he minced about and smugly mocked the King. Later, however, he found himself blindfolded on a chair, calling for his companions. Receiving no answer, his panic grew until he was screaming the names over and over in a horribly movig moment.

More surreal, the French’s horse was given special significance, with the Chorus dancing around it in two circles while it (a man with a head-dress made to look like a porcelain rocking horse head) gestured regally and pranced about the stage. The horse returned at the end to look at the dead French, lying beside him and mourning as if in a stylised melodrama.

The Chorus of locals were used to good effect, particularly in a moment where they quietly lay on top of each other to form an enormous pile of bodies. Much of the play was performed in slow-motion, giving an effect of events constantly building to an unknown climax and cleverly disrupted when battle commenced with a manic and disordered pandemonium onstage.

Pippo Delbono (Henry V)

In many ways, this was more of a response to ‘Henry V’ than a retelling of it, with the elements of the play reconfigured to tell a new story of war and its effects. I will admit, i was disappointed to find it wasn’t a fuller production of the play, as ‘Henry V’ is a play I haven’t really seen performed before, but this play served a different and vital purpose and was well worth the trip to Stratford.

The Italian translation was beautiful, rolling off the tongues of the three speakers, and the visual imagery was effective. The play was a bit wearing after a while- while repetition and slow motion were key to the play’s success, they also forced time to slow down, and the hour long production felt somewhat longer. This is no real complaint though, as Pippo and his companions had found a story they felt worth the telling at the heart of Shakespeare’s play, and made it their own. I can understand it not being to everyone’s tastes, and a couple of walkouts halfway through were disappointing, but on the whole this was an enjoyable and thought-provoking take on the themes of ‘Henry V’.

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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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