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March 04, 2012

King Lear (Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory) @ The Tobacco Factory, Bristol

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With only one Shakespeare play in this year’s Tobacco Factory season (the company are putting on The Cherry Orchard in place of a second), SATTF director Andrew Hilton has chosen to go back to the play that launched the company twelve years ago. Continuing the work of last year’s similarly pared-back Donmar production, King Lear appeared once more as one of the starkest of Shakespeare’s tragedies: a raw, bare exposure of flawed humans.

Despite the use of a conflated text and a 3 hour 10 minute running time, the striking feature of this Lear was its pace. Arguments escalated into violence in a matter of seconds; soldiers and messengers appeared and disappeared; John Shrapnel’s Lear stomped about the stage with a brisk bark as if continually running out of time. This was a play of action rather than reflection, with events racing towards the ‘promised end’.

King Lear

Shrapnel’s Lear, though diminutive in stature, was nonetheless a commanding presence. His naturally avuncular air, foregrounded in an opening entrance filled with laughter, gave way quickly to surprise and sudden rage at Eleanor Yates’s Cordelia’s pleading resistance. The attempt to provide psychological complexity to this sequence rather muted the effect, however – Shrapnel’s clear willingness to hear the positive in her words rendered the transition between love and banishment too superficial, responding to the words as spoken rather than to an organic sense of resentment.

A similar complaint might be made about Lear’s relationships with all three of the daughters. On the one hand, the production was keen to find sympathy for Lear, with the two elder daughters taking hands against him and a blustering Cornwall (Byron Mondahl) stacking the odds against an increasingly isolated king. On the other hand, Shrapnel delivered his insults, particularly to Julia Hills’s Goneril, with a malice that went far beyond the rational, and both Hills and Dorothea Myer-Bennett as Regan brought a righteous indignation to their earlier complaints. While complexity is no bad thing, the competing sympathies muted rather than heightened the sense of conflict. It was only in the second act, when Regan and Goneril began raising eyebrows and smirking at each other as their relationship disintegrated, that the play began revelling in the deliciously intractable and inexcusable crimes of its characters.

The dramatic interest in the first half came instead from Jack Whitam’s dynamic Edmund, amusing in his incredulous assertions of his kindred’s gullibility and engaging as he ran around all four sides of the Tobacco Factory’s audience, waiting for answers to his rhetorical questions. The imposition of what seemed like a very early interval (Lear leaving Gloucester’s house, as opposed to after the joint-stool scene or even after Gloucester’s blinding as in other recent productions) meant that Christopher Staines’s Edgar had less opportunity to make a mark before the interval. Once in disguise, however, he was an ideal opponent of Edmund. Wearing only a loincloth, and with twigs sticking out of bloodied gashes in his arms, his poor Tom was a wiry and wired presence, speaking quickly and providing an unwitting catalyst for Lear’s own destabilisation.

Comic relief was provided by Simon Armstrong, who gave a wonderfully brusque performance as the disguised Kent, and by Paul Brendan as his nemesis, Oswald. Armstrong’s stomping, plain-speaking performance deliberately mirrored Lear’s, positioning the character as one to whom Lear begins to aspire in his decline. Brendan’s Oswald, meanwhile, was a swaggering coward, who ran about the stage shrieking when challenged by Kent before turning to flourish his sword grandly at him once Cornwall and Regan had arrived. Christopher Bianchi’s Fool was less funny but perhaps more significant than other Fools I’ve seen. In ruff and long jerkin, he delivered many of his lines quietly and calmly, interspersed with the occasional song and skip. The clarity of his words was, however, key; and the scene in which he sat with Lear and Lear whispered “Let me be not mad” was perhaps the production’s most moving sequence, the friendship of the Fool allowing Lear to finally admit what he had hitherto only feared.

The play’s second half began with thunder and lightning as Kent and the Gentleman shouted to one another, followed by Lear speaking to rather than attempting to shout down the storm while the Fool shivered beside him. It was at this point that the action of the play began to noticeably accelerate, rushing through the chaotic encounter with Tom and the joint-stool scene, which saw Kent bury his head in his hands as the insanity built around him.

Yet it was tenderness that informed subsequent scenes of insanity. The Dover cliffs sequence was played out slowly and sensitively, and Lear’s encounter with the blinded Gloucester (Trevor Cooper) was tender, culminating in the two men sat cradling each other’s heads and Gloucester moaning as Lear finally acknowledged him. As usual for this play, the breakdown of Glocuester’s spirit was one of the more moving aspects, following on from a brutally brief eye-gouging sequence that was slightly unbelievable in its efficiency, but gave Cooper a chance to spit defiance at Cornwall and Regan, by this time fully embracing the nastiness of the characters as they sneered at the trapped man.

As the play drew to its close, Goneril and Regan were foregrounded as the backstabbing began, with some lovely touches as, for example, they took hands before Albany as they left the stage, but then wrenched them apart as soon as they were out of his sight. Alan Coveney grew to prominence as a dignified Albany, and as he finally issued his challenge to Edmund, Goneril’s fear as she shouted “An interlude!” spoke to a newfound respect for her husband. The two daughters handled their decline fantastically; Myer-Bennett’s cool resolve slowly collapsed as she fell ill, while Hills effectively ran mad, realising after Edmund’s defeat that no-one was listening to her any longer. The most powerful image from this plot, however, remained Edmund’s satisfied smile as he announced “But Edmund was beloved”.

With the bodies of Goneril and Regan kept offstage, all focus was on Lear and Cordelia’s body, the king appearing immediately as messengers ran off the other way. Fittingly, for such a sparse and bleak production, Shrapnel simply bowed his head over his daughter and never rose, and the play ended on the image of Kent kneeling beside the two bodies while Edgar rose and addressed Albany. If not an inventive Lear, the sparseness and emotive power of the performances made it a fine and faithful one, prioritising a story of broken relations and an unforgiving world.

February 04, 2011

King Lear (Donmar/NT Live) @ Warwick Arts Centre Cinema

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Poor Paul Jesson. As Gloucester in Michael Grandage's award-winning production of King Lear, last night he delivered one of the most powerful renditions of the Dover cliffs scene that I've ever been privileged to see. Accompanied by Gwilym Lee as Edgar, he shuffled across the bare bleached boards of the Donmar stage, his white shirt still covered in blood. Lee did tremendous work in manipulating the atmosphere of the scene: grabbing his father in panic, whispering in his ear, evoking a sense of genuine danger. Gloucester responded in kind, sobbing and clutching at his escort's hand as he steeled himself for his fall. As Edgar wept, Gloucester knelt and raised his hollow eyes to the heavens, defying the fates with a a final desperation that, to me, more effectively captured the despair of suicide than anything else in the play. As he tipped himself forward, falling flat on his face in a swoon, one felt like one was falling with him. In Jesson's expert hands, it became a climactic moment, a point of resolution and finality that rendered his survival almost perverse.

And then he had to do it again.

Shortly after Derek Jacobi's Lear entered for his scene with the blind man, the satellite broadcasting this performance of King Lear to cinemas around the world broke down. Error messages replaced the image of the actors, and we overheard a flunky breaking onto the stage to stop Jesson and Jacobi in mid-flow, and a ten minute break ensued while technicians worked frantically to resolve the problem. Eventually, and without preamble, the feed was restored - and a groan went up from the (cinema) audience as Gloucester and Edgar once more hobbled in to repeat their lengthy scene. While there were some pleasures in revisiting such a fantastic scene, and the cameras were better positioned this time, neatly juxtaposing Gloucester's words about his son with Edgar's pained reaction, the momentum had been destroyed, and it took some time to get back on track.

The NT Live project is, by and large, a great thing. It allows audiences of tens of thousands to see small productions - in this case, one that had sold out months ago - and allows an intimacy with actors' faces that is difficult for those without top-price tickets to achieve live. This comes at the expense of the live event of theatre and of audience freedom to see whatever isn't in the camera's frame (the inability to gauge how other characters are reacting to speeches is a particular frustration of mine); and, taking a wider view, I'm concerned that the broadcasting of London productions of the "classics" around the world may reinforce latent issues of provinciality and the perceived neccesary superiority of metropolitan art. These are more nuanced arguments, however, that shouldn't detract from the fact that, fundamentally, I couldn't afford to get down to London for this Lear, and I would far rather have seen it at my local cinema than not at all.

The technical issues are problematic, though. The idea of doing it live, as opposed to recording and lightly editing it for a delayed broadcast, is in order to promote the experience of the event; but practically, if we're honest, the liveness adds the excitement that something might go wrong. Yet even though last night was undoubtedly an event, I can't help but feel that the "liveness" of the hiccups was more of a frustration than a benefit. The sound was abysmal: atmospheric music was delivered through a different channel in the cinema, competing with the dialogue; actors were apparently unused to their microphones, so when Regan thumped her chest or Lear pulled Cordelia into his embrace, the sound boomed uncomfortably; and levels often fluctuated disappointingly. The on-stage introduction with Michael Grandage was reasonably unobtrusive, but was then followed by a pre-recorded film about the wonders of the Donmar; which was not only too long, but was poorly-timed with the live event - Gloucester and Kent were onstage and in dialogue the second that Grandage's face disappeared, which failed to allow the audience any time to adjust to the different register. These are all problems to be expected, but they are also problems which do affect enjoyment considerably; and as the ticket prices for these screenings creep up (£15, when tickets for the live show could be got for a tenner), I'm inclined to wonder if I would accept a cleaner end product in preference to the problematic idea of liveness.

The problems with the format aside, however, this was a stunning production of Lear, one of the best I've had the fortune to see. Central, of course, was Jacobi's exciting, innovative and fresh performance. Against a bare backdrop of white wooded slats, and in the intimate space of the Donmar, Jacobi found a very human king, whose tenderness towards all three of his daughters (particularly Cordelia) was key to understanding the collapse of his mind. This Lear thrived on love, both as obedience and physical tenderness, and the denial of this "love" by all three daughters was something beyond his ken. He clutched for words, his voice and body shook and he battled for self-control. His inability to grasp a world where his daughters could react so unexpectedly manifested as a slippage of reality, and in the most touching moment of the play he responded to the Fool's "Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise" by, instead of raging, grasping the Fool's hand for support and murmuring "O let me not be mad". In an age so dominated by the fear of Alzheimers, Lear's touching plea for sanity struck an emotional chord.

Jacobi's performance was characterised by a willingness to surprise the audience as much as his onstage companions with his delivery. This was most obvious in a storm scene which began with the spectacular strobing of lights and roaring of thunder, before suddenly dropping to absolute silence and a stark light as Lear whispered - whispered - his tirade against the storm, slowly building up the volume and power. His ability to curse was impressive (and matched only by Michael Hadley's hysterical Kent, in disguise as Caius, knocking the wind out of Amit Shah's superbly uppity Oswald), and he reduced his daughters to tears; as monstrous as the older sisters were, they were never less than Lear's daughters.

There was not a weak performance among the cast, although Gina McKee's voice as Goneril was rather raspy in transmission. McKee was also badly served by a horrible piece of editing, in which a jump cut to her for the line "If not, I'll ne'er trust medicine" came across as an hysterically comedic aside, a la Miranda Hart. Goneril was the more obviously malicious of the pair, taking the lead in the conspiracy between the older sisters by taking Regan aside after Cordelia's departure for France. She unbuttoned her dress in seduction of Edmund, and marvelled musingly at the distant sight of her father hunting, which gave her the idea for treating him like a child. Justine Mitchell's Regan, by contrast, was emotional and unstable, frequently acting with angry tears running down her face, and unable to stand her father's curses; which, however, only drew her further into stubbornness. She was shocked at her own action in killing Cornwall's servant, and her later decision to pursue Edmund was justified so uncertainly that laughter was yet again provoked. Her instability and distress rendered her surprisingly sympathetic, but neither of the pair was brought back onstage after their deaths - their story was complete.

Alec Newman's Edmund was the best kind of Machiavel - hunched, dynamic, bearded and leery. His ingratiating charisma and speed of delivery made the ease of his deceptions believable, and the character's own physical insecurities went some way towards justifying his behaviours. Addressing the heavens constantly (one nice effect of the NT Live was the inclusion of a "gods-eye camera", allowing Lear and Gloucester to address the audience directly in their grandstanding moments), his defiance of the universe was engaging, and the audience were allowed to take pleasure in his villainy even as we looked forward to his downfall - his laughter on hearing of Goneril and Regan's deaths was particularly sickly. In contrast, Gwilym Lee gave a heartfelt performance as Edgar, with the camera lingering on his reaction shots to Lear's madness and his own father's mentions of him. The intensity and earnestness of Edgar's performance turned him into the play's moral centre, the practical man of strong principles. Their final fight was short and brutal, the hooded Edgar (his jerkin and hood evoked Robin Hood for much of the second act) quickly grabbing Edmund's sword and slashing him across his stomach; more important was its symbolic significance as Edgar centrally reclaimed his authority.

There was plenty more to enjoy. The always wonderful Ron Cook was a Fool very much in the Sylvester McCoy mode, but given to a desperate sadness rather than antics. He openly challenged Lear, and much of 1.5 was spoken in anger as the Fool used his jibes to rail at his king - at least, until Lear's mood softened and he attempted to stay reasonable. This Fool was very much Lear's mirror, but also the emotional crutch needed to keep him functioning. Kent, meanwhile, was reliably entertaining and brusque throughout, while Jesson's magnificent Gloucester was the equal of Jacobi's Lear. The scene between the two old companions on Dover beach, watched by an awestruck Edgar, was simply beautiful, the two men crawling on the floor, holding one another and eventually both lying on the stage, spreadeagled and exhausted, as Lear finally admitted he recognised his friend.

There's too much left to say; but this was, indeed, a Lear for our generation; a pared-back, human reading of the play that focussed on the breakdown of family bonds, the fears of slipping into senility, and the desperate struggle to do the right thing in a world that opposes you at every turn. The close, as Lear slipped back into the arms of Kent and Edgar, was powerfully affecting; but for me, it was the camera's slow tilt upwards to the white walls above the tableau that resonated beyond the curtain calls - the empty, imposing and constant space of the stage that the characters had entered in good spirits and left in desolation. That NT Live decided to broadcast this production, despite the technical flaws, is something I'll be long thankful for.

March 05, 2010

King Lear (RSC) @ The Courtyard Theatre

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The last time the RSC produced King Lear at the Courtyard Theatre, it was one of the most high-profile theatrical events of the decade. Directed by Trevor Nunn and starring Ian McKellen, it was the climax of the Complete Works Festival as well as going on to generate an international tour, a West End run, national television broadcast and extensive DVD sales. The ongoing afterlife of this production meant that this new production on the same stage felt like a rather sudden return to the play for the company, demanding it particularly work to distinguish itself from its immediate predecessor.

The unique advantage available to Associate Director David Farr, returning to the Courtyard after last year's successful Winter's Tale, was working once again with the RSC's current three-year ensemble company, now halfway through its time performing together. This allowed Farr to explore the merits of directing Lear with a relatively democratic company, as opposed to one led by a single star actor. In the opening scene, Greg Hicks' Lear demonstrated this attitude admirably: his king took a position of central dominance for the division of the kingdom, but afterwards faded into the background as Cordelia's suitors bartered over her, yielding the focus of attention to his disowned daughter.

Hicks' unshowy Lear was a minor revelation, taking a fresh approach to the King's decline. From the start, his authority and command were uncertain. A grand procession announced his arrival, with courtiers bowing to the stage's rear entrance in expectance. After a long, embarrassing pause, a loud laugh came from the back of the auditorium, and Lear ambled in from the audience, forcing the courtiers to quickly rearrange themselves. This playful king ruled not with supernatural command or martial power, but with a combination of avuncular humour, petulant anger and impulsive unpredictability: his sudden grasp of a sword to strike down Darrell D'Silva's Kent in the first scene, for example, was created with horror by a court who, as a man, rushed to stop him. Moments like this insinuated a court dynamic of tolerance and sycophantic respect for a weak king: humoured as long as his orders were reasonable, but coddled and restrained when his orders were not approved. This extended into his relationship with his daughters, over whom he exerted a similar blend of bullying, emotional blackmail and genuine affection. A lover of performances, as evidenced by his noisily-sweeping ceremonial cloak and insistence on the daughters standing on boxes in order to address him, he frequently descended into scathing sarcasm and enactment of both his and his daughters' fantasies: most effectively, miming the mannerisms and voice of a doddering old man as he accused both Goneril and Regan of seeing him thus.

This, then, wasn't the epochal fall of a great man, but the personal, internal collapse of a sane man. Lear's self-aggrandising nature, his bullying and emotional swings, were all imagined as characteristics of a mind on the brink of collapse, pushed over by the eventual refusal of his daughters to play along to his own conceptions of reality anymore. Cordelia's refusal to bolster his ego, followed by Goneril and Regan's refusal to accommodate the trappings of his kingship, dealt him a dual blow that shattered his imagined persona and left him vulnerable. Consequently, his scenes of madness were the most affecting and poignant of the production. Appearing in Act 4 naked from the waist up, with a headdress of great leaves and plants stuffed down his trousers and socks, he cut a pitiful figure but also a free one. As he held the sobbing Gloucester, confessing that he knew his old earl, we finally saw the genuine affection that the old Lear, obsessed with maintaining his sense of power, had never allowed himself to show.

Alongside Lear's mental collapse came the physical collapse of the stage (a popular RSC staging device in recent years). This timeless world had a delapidated basement feel to it, with peeling walls gradually crumbling away and flickering neon overhead lights fading and creaking from their hangings. Light entered the stage from a set of windows far above, but otherwise this was mostly a dim and claustrophobic England. Pre-Christian armour and cloaks mingled with WW2 uniforms and medical equipment in a deliberate merging of England's pasts: this was not about an historical time of struggle, but a universal moment of mental collapse and its significance toe the world around that person.

The daughters of this production were largely very impressive. Kelly Hunter played an older Goneril with a great deal of dignity. It was implied, through the vehemence of Lear's curses and her reaction to them, that she and husband Albany (a solid John Mackay) were trying - and had failed - to produce an heir, and her sobbing reaction to Lear's repeated wishes for her sterility seemed genuine. These curses were later revisited by Lear upon himself, as he massaged his own genitalia while complaining of "hell","darkness", and the "sulphorous pit." Katy Stephens' red-dressed Regan was more confident and forward, even descending from her crate in order to emphasise her affections for her father in the opening scene. While flirtatious, this Regan was not as sexually aggressive as is sometimes played: her winning smiles were always matched with hard eyes, and she preferred to maintain her independent authority from arm's length rather than throw herself into mens' arms. The motivation of both was a typical combination of pressure forced on them by their father and self-interested ambition, and the descent of the pair to open murder (Goneril's "I'll ne'er trust medicine" was openly screamed at Regan, who realised instantly what had been done to her as she knelt on the floor gagging) was neatly realised. Unfortunately, this entire subplot was let down by Tunji Kasim's shallow and uninteresting Edmund. While Edmund performed the basic functions required of him, the glue that ties together the conspiracy, betrayal and infighting of the sisters' story was entirely lacking, leaving Hunter and Stephens struggling to tie their performances into the whole.

Samantha Young grew into the part of Cordelia after a feeble opening, in which her asides to the audience following her sisters' declarations of love (often cut, with good reason) were delivered in a spotlight from the centre of the stage, a device entirely foreign to the spirit of the rest of the production. Dressed in green robes and armour as she led the forces of France into Britain, however, she provided a commanding and strong presence. As she kneeled before Lear's wheelchair and met him at ground level, the significance of this reunification and forgiveness after what appeared to have been a lifetime of unbalanced relationships was strongly reinforced. The moment also provided a neat connection for viewers of Farr's Winter's Tale, where Hicks and Young were similarly reunited as Leontes and Perdita. The casting connections also held true for Hicks and Hunter, where his cursing of Goneril held strong echoes of his similar treatment of her earlier Hermione; while the dance of Kathryn Hunter's Fool around D'Silva's Kent nodded to the pair's upcoming collaboration as Cleopatra and Antony.

The Fool, a young boy played by a middle-aged woman, was particularly interesting in this production. Hunter's tiny stature allowed her to literally run rings around the other performers on stage, keeping up an energy that allowed her scenes to feel both fresh and funny. A face of genuine fear at the mention of Lear's whip told us that this Fool was tormented by Lear at least as brutally as his daughters were, but the Fool's purpose in speaking the truths no-one else can was thus even more important than ever. Sad and wistful, Hunter sat with Hicks, kicking her legs and gazing at him in distress as he fought with his daughters, and that gaze told us all we needed to know about Lear's prior decline from a state of greatness. After fleeing Gloucester's castle, the two sat together again, and the image of the tiny Fool sitting next to the tall Lear, with a briefcase in front of them, struck this reviewer as being reminiscent of the set-up of a ventriloquist act: whether intentional or not, the image was more than appropriate for a scene in which the Fool and the King effectively complete each other's thoughts.

The storm scene gave Hunter a chance to showcase a small element of the physical work for which she is renowned, breaking through the back wall and swinging out into the main auditorium as thunder crashed and lightning illuminated the entire stage. Hicks, stood on a raised platform centre-stage, was caught in a narrow deluge of pouring water. The image was striking, and served to reinforce the importance of the storm as internal as much as external. His appearance in this state was contrasted nicely by Charles Aitkin's excellent Edgar/Poor Tom who, with his dishevelled hair, beard and loincloth, visually evoked the suffering Christ. Self-flagellating and rambling in a near-liturgical manner, Edgar's performance as Tom invoked the sense of self-punishment that the production then allowed us to read into Lear as well.

Other strong performances can only be quickly mentioned: Geoffrey Freshwater gave a tender performance as Gloucester, beurocratic and desk-bound in earlier scenes but dignified and painfully desperate after his gruesome blinding, for which Cornwall (Clarence Smith, reprising a role he played for Headlong Theatre only last year) used a red-hot poker. James Tucker was officious and extremely amusing as Oswald, while Darrell D'Silva gave a bluff and leering performance as a down-and-dirty Kent, although the attempt to revive interest in the character's fate by having him pull out a knife before his final exit felt rather peripheral: the production hadn't invested enough in Kent to allow this to feel important. Similarly, Albany's response to Edmund's death ("That's but a trifle here") was greeted with laughter, despite the character's body remaining on stage to physically counterbalance the positioning of Regan and Cordelia's bodies: the laughter of the audience bespoke a lack of interest in a plotline that felt like a distraction from the main plot. There were other disappointments: the appearance of Edgar for the final duel with two six foot broadswords promised a spectacular finale, which instead fizzled out in a single clash of blades and a swipe across Edmund's stomach.

This, then, was a production of sundry good parts that didn't quite add up to a satisfying whole. Hicks's dying moments, gasping out his final words as he fell backwards with Cordelia in his lap, came as a fitting climax to a touching and powerful reading of the main plot, but this clear and defined focus on Lear's own collapse wasn't wide enough to govern the myriad subplots and additional characters. While finding an identity distinct to itself, and featuring strong performances and visual displays, the universality of the aesthetic translated to a lack of dramatic unity for the play as a whole, and the audience was instead left to content itself with the details.

This review originally appeared at Shakespeare Revue.

November 06, 2008

King Lear @ The Everyman Theatre

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Rupert Goold’s new production of King Lear is a particularly major event for the Liverpool Everyman Theatre, the small repertory theatre with a longstanding reputation for excellence. One of the central events of Liverpool’s year as European Capital of Culture, the production brings together one of the nation’s most prominent young directors and a star name in the shape of Pete Postlethwaite, returning to the theatre where he first made his name. The run in Liverpool precedes a transfer to London’s Young Vic, and will no doubt bring a great deal of well-deserved attention to the Everyman. It’s a great shame, then, to find the production such a disappointment.

At the centre of the production’s problems was a fundamental lack of coherence. Goold chose a contemporary setting for the play, with the apparent intent of reflecting ideas of modern Englishness back at the audience; but the concept was messily realised in a production that consistently chose style over substance. The modern updates felt arbitrary and superficial, a key example being Lear’s knights. The idea of making them into football hooligans with painted faces was clearly inspired by the reports of their rowdiness; but why would an old man be touring the country with a retinue of football louts? Why did their apparent uncontrollable anarchy then give way to standing quietly and politely taking orders? Why did they get rifles? This problem recurred throughout the play as modernisations were chosen for their initial visual impact but then ignored rather than integrated into the play’s aesthetic.

The play was packed full of ideas which were poorly realised. An anonymous ‘Boy’ followed Lear prominently before defecting to Cornwall’s army, all with little apparent reason, his blank face giving nothing away. Kent was made an Anglican vicar to no discernible purpose (and actually jarring with his later actions). The Fool (Forbes Masson on top form) gave a high-powered and deeply scathing performance in the first half of the play, commenting effectively on Lear’s stupidity, and fell into a sombre sobriety as he watched his master lose his mind. However, the Fool was kept alive and on stage beyond his disappearance from the text, taking over the Doctor’s lines. His shift to complete sanity was fluid, but rather undermined the effectiveness of his earlier scenes, the character becoming extremely dull. It appeared eventually that he had been kept alive simply to give Edmund the opportunity to callously shoot him in the head while telling a knock-knock joke, but this cheap piece of violence came at the expense of the Fool’s dramatic relationship with the King.

A far more effective idea was making Goneril pregnant. Here, at last, was a decision that gave a character a clear arc and motivation, her stance against her father stemming at least in part from a maternal instinct to protect her brood from the rowdy football fans. Lear’s curse of sterility and barrenness was rendered horrific, he pointing at her swollen belly and effectively calling for the unborn child’s immediate death. After giving birth in the storm, the baby itself became a focus; Albany (a pathetic drip of a man) was left holding the child while Goneril dallied with Edmund, and Edmund himself addressed the baby, holding up cuddly toys to its pram while he equivocated between the two sisters. The off-stage screaming of the baby at the play’s end as the lights went down was a fitting end, and it was only to be wished that the production had more firmly committed to this aspect of its concept, rather than muddying it with the other confused business.

Postlethwaite himself gave a solid performance as Lear, particularly drawing out the character’s humour. The first scene became a birthday buffet for the king, who entered in casual suit and played host, speaking into a microphone and setting up the declarations of love as a form of karaoke. Reappearing in his next scene in a cardigan, he was every inch the retired father rather than the king. This was also a failing, however; the setting divested Lear of any sense of regal authority even in his earlier scenes, he always being more of a dad-figure than a monarch, and thus the production became unbalanced. I’ve never seen a production of Lear in which the central character was so pushed to the margins, partly due to the histrionic performances in the subplots which further cast Postlethwaite’s scenes into shadow. The comedy of the character was pushed further by having him appear in a flowery dress when meeting Gloucester, removing the sense of pathetic dignity that the scene usually inspires and turning him more into a straightforward comedian, that again distracted from the tragedy of the character’s decline. 

The other older characters were better served. John Shrapnel was an unusually feisty Gloucester. Wearing a tracksuit, we saw him ‘training’ Edgar and Edmund, timing them with a stopwatch as they performed press-ups and jogged. His inclination to activity was further demonstrated by Edmund having to physically restrain him from going to immediately attack Edgar after reading the letter given to him by Edmund. Once blinded, with his ability to act on his active impulses, his suicidal tendencies were a natural progression, and his frustration at still being alive after his ‘fall’ was heartfelt. Interestingly, though, even when blind he was still capable of action; he intervened in the brawl between Oswald and Edgar, leaping on Oswald and stabbing him in the stomach, allowing Edgar to finish him off. Nigel Cooke’s Kent was similarly active. While the fact of his being a priest was conveniently ignored after the first scene (one wonders why they used that idea in the first place), in disguise he became a feisty, flat-capped Northerner with an aggressive demeanour. When challenging Oswald at Gloucester’s house, Oswald initially laughed in his face, mocking the old man’s readiness to fight, but after being shoved in the chest he became more genuinely scared of the old man.

The younger characters, however, were less strong, relying more on hysterics for impact. Charlotte Randle’s Regan was decent in her earlier scenes, with confident poise and a casual disregard for her father, but during the blinding of Gloucester the hysterics began, taking sexual delight in the torture and – in a particularly gruesome moment – tearing Gloucester’s second eye out with her teeth, to Cornwall’s stunned horror. Caroline Faber’s Goneril was more restrained, but as the play drew to its close both sisters began to rely on histrionics, getting louder and louder as their battle over Edmund reached its pitch. Edmund, a heavily accented Irishman played by Jonjo O’Neill, was played at top speed throughout the play, which worked well in soliloquy but rather rushed over all his machinations and scheming. By the final scene this performance was also over-acted, he lying in a pool of blood and screaming his various revelations hysterically at the rest of the cast. 

Perhaps the most disappointing performance, though, was Tobias Menzies’ Edgar. He was entirely passive and blank in his first few appearances, allowing himself to be completely moulded and manipulated by Edmund. His performance as Poor Tom was borderline offensive, relying on traditional playground representations of mental disability (tongue tucked in lower lip, smacking back of wrist with hand etc.) for ‘madness’, which I found extremely uncomfortable, particularly as a group of schoolchildren in the audience fell into hysterics. Menzies was better as his Poor Tom disguise was cast off, bringing some pathos into his scenes with his father, but all the good work was cast off in the awful concept adopted for the final duel with Edmund, for which the entire tone of the play switched to ugly travesty. At the third blast of a toy trumpet, Edgar appeared with his face masked by an England flag and carrying two plastic swords. The two brothers flapped their swords at each other, Edmund scorning the toy weapons, before they tussled and Edgar forced his sword down Edmund’s throat, effectively choking him on the plastic (yet not preventing Edmund screaming his story for several minutes afterwards, another incongruity). Quite why Edgar would want to take such an irreverent attitude towards the fight was a mystery considering the character’s progression to that point, and the whole scene instead felt crude and gratuitous.

This was a sorely disappointing Lear, which seemed to have very little of interest to say about the play and instead relied on incongruent images and gimmicks to accompany the text. The entire tone of the production felt out of keeping with the formal set-up (the performance lasted three and a half hours, with two intervals) and the relatively dignified central performance was undermined by a crude and ineffective approach to the rest of the play. Flashes of inspiration failed to be bound together by a sense of purpose. This was an early performance, and hopefully the production will grow - there's definitely potential - , but for now it appeared to simply lack a clear sense of what it wanted to be.

This review originally appeared at Shakespeare Revue.

June 27, 2008

King Lear : The Movie

Any new film version of a Shakespeare play is always welcome, but this announcement from the Guardian sounds particularly interesting:

The Oscar-winning actor Anthony Hopkins is to play King Lear in a new film version of the Shakespeare tragedy, it was confirmed today.

The film will feature Gwyneth Paltrow, Naomi Watts and Keira Knightley as Lear's three daughters, with more big names to be revealed soon, according to the director, Joshua Michael Stern.

"The one thing that I'm staying away from is stunt casting," said Stern, "so there won't be the American comedian, but there will be some really great actors playing smaller roles that will make a lot of sense."

Despite Stern's background - he's scripted episodes of Law & Order and Chicago Hope - he insists he won't be meddling with the original text. "I'm not very fond of the modern adaptations," he said. "It's pre-Roman, Celtic, very raw. It's a period in British history, from which Tolkien took a lot of his inspiration, where there were thatched-roof roundhouses and fortresses."

Stern's previous directorial efforts have been limited to a couple of comedy shorts: Queer Eye for the Homeless Guy and Jewz N The Hood, both shot in 2005.

Hopkins is said to be "thrilled" at the chance to reprise the role he played in David Hare's production of the play at the National 21 years ago in 1987.

Shooting is scheduled to begin in Britain or Ireland early next year.

Here's my analysis of the interesting things in this announcement:

  • He's "not very fond of the modern adaptations". Well, this is a viewpoint, if not one I share. Whatever his reasoning, though, I'd actually welcome a decent period-set Lear that evoked the time in which it was set, much as Roman Polanski did for Macbeth. It's a rich period, and on a cinema screen could be quite spectacular and draw out the interesting pre-Christian resonances in the text.

  • Keira Knightley as Cordelia. Bit unsure, but then I think the part is well within her range. Might give her a chance to bring out the Celtic warrior-woman armour from King Arthur again.

  • Two very attractive older sisters, which is interesting, and nice to see that they're not going for evil old hags, as it were. It'll be interesting to see how the sisters relate to one another.

  • "Really great actors playing smaller roles". One can only hope they avoid the trap that Kenneth Branagh fell into with Hamlet, which turned the film into a "Where's Wally?" game on a massive scale, with people more interested in who was playing who then what they were saying.

  • Anthony Hopkins as Lear. Enough said.

June 02, 2008

King Lear @ Shakespeare's Globe

Putting on a tragedy at the Globe is a substantial challenge. The space, open to the elements and with much of the audience standing only feet away from the actors, invites laughter and participation rather than sober reflection or sadness. It is testament to the strengths of Artistic Director Dominic Dromgoole and his team, then, that the Globe’s new Lear was largely a triumphant one, striking an ideal balance between tragedy and comedy that kept its audience entertained while losing none of the play’s raw power.

The basic approach that has characterised the Globe’s recent work (period costume, period instruments, straightforward storytelling) worked well in the production’s favour. Where Trevor Nunn’s RSC production packed the scenes and scene changes with additional business, Dromgoole instead favoured a fast and fluid approach with each scene melting into the next without pause. The almost total lack of set aided this and focused attention on the actors, for this was a production concerned primarily with performances and clarity.

Although this was emphatically an ensemble production, David Calder’s Lear still dominated. He was a still-powerful Lear, upright and with resounding voice. He paced the stage in the opening scene as he invited his daughters to speak, and advanced on Kent and Cordelia as they defied him, even drawing against Kent. His physical activeness was hampered by the onset of madness rather than by bodily decline, losing the certainty of direction and purpose that characterised him in earlier scenes. Even in the throes of insanity he still had a powerful presence, cradling the blind Gloucester as he wept and recognising him in a voice that bordered on condescending. In prison with Cordelia he was yet again the comforter, pulling her close to him and happily consoling her before leading her off, flanked by Edmund’s soldiers. Right up to the end he maintained a strength of body, kneeling over Cordelia and actively looking for signs of life before a heart attack, or similar, struck him down. His strength throughout was striking, and his authority rarely diminished.

The other stand-out performances came from Trystan Gravelle’s Edgar and Ashley Rolfe’s Oswald, in very different ways. Gravelle took Edgar on an impressive journey throughout the play, going from a shrieking comic coward in his first appearances, easily gulled by Daniel Hawksford’s solid Edmund, through his transformation into the bloodied and near-naked Poor Tom to the noble helmeted knight who faced his brother in the climactic duel. Through these, the audience were able to watch Edgar’s confidence and strength gradually grow, the Poor Tom episode becoming a learning curve in independence for him. His Tom was relatively lucid, often discoursing matter-of-factly with Lear, and every experience had in his various disguises – the attempted suicide of his father, the killing of Oswald, the witnessing of Lear’s madness – contributed to the creation of the sensitive yet heroic figure who took his place at Albany’s side at the close. Rolfe, on the other hand, gave a flamboyantly comic performance as Oswald, wearing what appeared to be an upside-down flowerpot on his head. Petulant and sycophantic, Oswald was a slimy servant and abject coward, running screaming away from Kent. He came to a suitably nasty end at Edgar’s hand – drawing his sword against the unarmed “peasant”, Edgar unbuckled his belt and looped it in order to grab the sword and cast it away. He then proceeded to throttle Oswald brutally, Oswald improbably choking out his final instructions to deliver the letter to Edmund before both collapsed, Oswald dead and Edgar in tears.

These bloody moments were suitably shocking. The goriest eye-gouging I’ve ever seen on stage was inflicted on Joseph Mydell’s Gloucester, Cornwall simply kneeling on Gloucester’s lap, raising his hand and drawing out a bloody eyeball, complete with broken stem, to universal shudders from the audience. Regan removed the second eye, and both smeared themselves with blood in pleasure. At the other end of the violent scale, Edgar and Edmund’s duel was expertly choreographed, starting on an outcrop of the stage that extended into the middle of the audience (causing several people to duck out of the way of flailing swords) and finishing on the main stage after an impressive physical display that earned one of two spontaneous rounds of applause (the other being reserved for Kent’s insulting of Oswald earlier).

One of the more creative artistic decisions came in the wonderful storm that Dromgoole and composer Claire van Kampen created for the play’s centrepiece. The band used drums, thunder machines and wind machines to create a deafening cacophony of noise that even Lear had to shout over to be heard, a simple but effective din that really did resemble the noises of thunder. To accompany the chaos, Dromgoole created a chorus of ‘Bedlamites’, bloodied half-naked figures like Poor Tom who emerged from trapdoors and moved among the audience, grinning and gurning, climbing the totem poles that stood at the front corners of the stage and creating an unsettling atmosphere in the pit. Some carried water machines, poles that they shook back and forth to create the noise of rainfall, meaning the storm could be heard in something approaching surround sound. It was breathtakingly effective and a real insight into how effective old methods of creating effects can be.

The audience also responded noisily to the plentiful comedy that the company wrung out of several scenes. Paul Copley’s bluff Kent was responsible for much of this, his no-nonsense attitude towards everyone else always a delight. Danny Lee Wynter, in his professional debut as the Fool, was also very amusing in an intelligent and thought-provoking way. His relationship with Lear, jiggling the King on his knee at one point, meant that even his more pointed remarks went without punishment, but their impact was not lost on the audience. The Fool’s acute observations cut through the laughter and signified the direction in which Lear’s actions were taking him. Ultimately, the Fool’s story became less funny as Lear’s madness overtook him, and in the hovel Lear ended up eventually throttling the Fool angrily, leaving him breathless and almost motionless on the floor. It was only as Lear left that the Fool slowly picked himself off and pointedly ran out the other way, never to be seen again during the play.

More serious moments like this demonstrated the skill of both actors and director in pitching tragedy to the crowd. Crucially, they used silence. Lear and Jodie McNee’s Cordelia were both excellent in their use of quiet at moment of particular severity or tenderness, allowing their looks and movements to do the work while the audience, in response, also grew quiet and still. Perhaps most moving was Cordelia and Lear’s first meeting after her banishment. Lear was brought in on a wheeled stretcher, and Cordelia took several long pauses, clenching her eyes shut and turning towards the audience, before finally turning to look at him and gasping at his frail state. Later, their love for each other dominated the end of the war, the two holding on to each other and finding their comfort there.

Cordelia was straightforwardly good and saintly, and her refusal to lie in her initial interview was commendable, if a little abrupt. Goneril and Regan, however, were more complex. Both younger than often played, the two were perfectly dutiful in the initial scenes, despite voicing their worries about their father’s increasing irrationality. Later, a mock hunt within Goneril’s walls justified her concern, and her argument with her father clearly upset her. It was only after this point, after the sisters had exchanged letters, that the nastier sides of their characters started to emerge, taking some pleasure in their father’s anger and being turned against each other through their mutual infatuation with Edmund. The sexuality of both started to become more apparent, Goneril licking her lips at the thought of her affair while Regan pressed Oswald suggestively to her in an attempt to see his letter. Their self-destructive path led no doubts as to the end they were heading towards.

In a final surprise, though, Dromgoole created a final redemptive moment for his characters, an uplifting end that could have been awful but was in fact moving. As the bodies lay and Albany, Edgar and Kent bowed their heads, a Celtic lament began (singing throughout was provided by the excellent Pamela Hay), and the rest of the cast appeared from the tiring house, moving slowly forward and starting to join in with the lament. As they sang, Edgar approached Edmund’s body while Albany and Cornwall approached those of their wives. They all touched their partner gently, the bodies stirred and they were helped up. Goneril and Regan then in turn went to Cordelia and raised her together, and finally Cordelia woke her father, all joining in the singing. Building to a crescendo, the characters were finally united in a place that transcended life and death, where things seemed forgiven. It was entirely un-textual, of course, but a fascinating end that didn’t feel out of keeping with the play’s bleakness, and the audience hugely appreciated it. The final dance and curtain calls were greeted ecstatically, a thoroughly-deserved response to an excellent production.

This review was originally written for Shakespeare Revue.

December 17, 2007

King Lear @ The New London Theatre

Trevor Nunn’s King Lear has been a thorn in my side for several months now. I saw it very early on in its initial run in Stratford and loved it, as my review clearly showed. Since then, however, the production has had a very strange reception. Frances Barber suffered an accident, causing the press night to be postponed for a couple of months, leaving critics baying for Trevor Nunn’s blood as they were denied the chance to see the season’s hot ticket early on. A scathing write-up by Germaine Greer made waves, and it seemed to be fashionable for a while to slate the production. Yet then press night came, and the reviewers by and large loved it, with 4 and 5 star reviews sweeping the board (The Independent being a notable exception). So now, nine months after my first viewing, I found myself again taking my seat for Lear, this time in the fancy New London Theatre. I’ve stayed loyal to the production all that time, prizing my immediate emotional response above the academic criticisms of my colleagues, but nonetheless I found myself feeling considerably more sceptical this time around. With a bit of distance, would the play be as good as I remembered?

The answer, typically, was yes and no, and perhaps nothing could have equalled the original experience. Firstly, I was now at the back of the auditorium rather than in the front row. The power and sheer volume of the production were greatly diminished as a result, especially in the grandiose organ-scored opening sequence and the thunderous battle scene later as explosions drove Gloucester close to madness. What were overpowering sensory experiences in the front row became merely good from the back. The matinee also experienced some difficulties- a gun failed to go off, Albany called Edmund ‘Edgar’ and, perhaps most ironically, Frances Barber was yet again indisposed. This latter posed no problem, with her more-than-adequate understudy Melanie Jessop yet again stepping into a major role, but it added to the feeling that the production was not living up to its full potential.

Elsewhere, I could see more clearly the complaints that people have raised about the production. There was a lot of ‘business’ to accompany the play, including a sequence wherein the Doctor was arrested along with Lear and Cordelia but forced to leave his medicine cabinet on stage, from where Goneril stole the poison which she used in Regan’s drink. It was neat, but unnecessary, and there was plenty of this kind of thing going on.

But still, I maintain it’s a great Lear, and I was pleased to see that the production still retained most of the strengths which warmed me to it last time. Ian McKellen gave a cracking performance which just got better as the play drew on, particularly in the scenes of his madness and his moments with Cordelia, and yet again I found myself gulping as he stroked the hair of his dead daughter. I also still found Sylvester McCoy’s Fool very moving, and it’s this production more than any other that showed me why the Fool is so important to the play. McCoy fulfilled the manic part of his job description with plenty of gusto, but it was the moments that revealed the old man underneath that worked best, as he threw down his wig, pleaded with his king and quietly stroked his hand as Regan and Goneril turned on him. The on-stage hanging had less impact this time around (inevitable when you know it’s coming), but the childish Fool plucking desperately at his master’s sleeve is an image that will remain with me.

Edgar and Edmund’s final battle was one of the best pieces of stage-fighting I’ve ever seen, a bravely extended piece of choreography that saw them crashing over furniture, upturning the table and wheeling around at great speed, and Ben Meyjes and Philip Winchester deserve great credit for their skill in this. I also enjoyed John Heffernan’s performance, which brought a good deal of humour to Oswald, particularly with his “Oh no….” as he lay tripped at the feet of Kent. William Gaunt’s Gloucester was another stand-out, particularly as he lay blind with the mad king, cradled in his arms.

It’s possible that one’s opinion on this production comes down to whether or not one likes Trevor Nunn’s style of direction. His was a busy vision, with lots going on both in terms of stage activity and character development, and he has an eye for reading between the lines of the text to find unspoken links between his characters. His reading also allowed little room for ambiguity, leaving you in no doubt that this is Trevor Nunn’s King Lear . A key example of this was his approach to religion- at every opportunity he emphasised the appealing of characters to the gods and their blind faith in the overall goodness of the powers that be, only to have their hopes cruelly and visibly dashed at the end: everyone still on stage knelt and held their hands up in supplication for the lives of Lear and Cordelia, and the tense pause was broken by Lear’s howls. There were no gods in this production, and Nunn made that abundantly clear.

This clarity and directness is a weakness or a strength, depending on your point of view. I found it a strength. Nunn’s vision of the play is not necessarily mine, but his was a thoroughly enjoyable and valid one, presented with conviction by the excellent cast. The story was told simply and effectively, yet was also filled with plenty of activity and interest, and every character received the appropriate attention. It’s a great production, and if they do go ahead with filming it (as I believe is on the cards), I will be eagerly awaiting the DVD.

March 31, 2007

King Lear @ The Courtyard Theatre

I don’t wish to come across as unprofessional, but this is going to be a very difficult review to write. Last night I sat in the front row for Trevor Nunn’s ‘King Lear’, and I still don’t feel as if I’ve entirely recovered. It was theatre as I’ve rarely experienced it- theatre that reaches inside your chest, tears out your heart and leaves you in severe emotional distress. It was also quite possibly the best thing I have seen in the last twelve months, and certainly the finest production I have EVER seen at the RSC.

From the start, Trevor Nunn set the tone with powerful organ music booming across the theatre from a backdrop that reminded me of nothing so much as ‘Phantom of the Opera’, with balcony, plush red curtain and chandelier, as the cast processed across the stage in state. Nunn had updated the play to an unspecified 18th-19th century background, the costumes a mix of late-regency/Napoleonic/Cossack military regimes. It was a setting that worked purely to the production’s advantage, particularly as the lush backdrop was gradually destroyed and the bare stage piled up with barricades and sandbags as the war blew up. An awe-inspiring war sequence saw the blinded Gloucester writhing in terror on the floor as lights flashed, guns crackled and explosions shook the theatre. In some ways, this was more akin to his world-beating musicals than his chamber Shakespeare, the production having the epic feel of a ‘Les Miserables’.

The acting quality was exactly what we have come to expect of Nunn’s unrivalled directorial output, and so we come to Sir Ian McKellen. Working entirely as part of an ensemble, rather than dominating the production, McKellen’s Lear was an intricate balance of opposing forces- the kindly father, the betrayed old man, the violent servant-beater, the confused madman and the dying man bereaved of his daughters. Clearly not content to rest on the laurels of an incredible career, he proved yet again why he’s known as the greatest Shakespeare actor of his generation with a performance that had several of the audience in tears, yet still drew laughs and gasps from us too. He was Lear, and the RSC was entirely justified in selling the production on him.

Anyone who knows me, though, knows how sceptical I am about the star system, and that there is no way I would be satisfied with a production that relied on its lead actor to carry it through. The cast were, individually and together, absolutely superb. Lear’s three daughters were highly individual, and Goneril in particular more sympathetic than usual, even giving a motherly embrace to Cordelia before she left the court. Cordelia, on the other hand, was at the start a silly little girl, who didn’t understand the consequences of the speech she was expected to meet and used the occasion to ridicule her father and sisters, laughing at the ludicrousness of the situation and not for one second expecting it to mean anything- her reaction as she was disinherited was one of utter shock and disbelief, staggering around the stage as her world collapsed. Far more modern- and far less drippy- than she often seems, she brought a breath of fresh air to the part.

A powerful Edgar, played by Ben Meyjes, gave an outstanding showcase of his talent, going from bookish to naked and Gollum-like to hardy servant to chivalric hero, flicking between accents impeccably and giving an emotional performance even when simply watching the older men talking. The stage fight was the best I have ever seen, and did credit to he and Philip Winchester’s Edmund, but especially to fights director Malcolm Ranson who created a very real and very exciting fight, with furniture and cups flying about, brother striking out in real rage and absolutely no sense of staginess about it.

Every time I think of Sylvester McCoy’s Fool, a tear wells up. Funny and moving at the same time, he redefined the role for me, giving a beautiful representation of a servant trying desperately to do his job in the face of overwhelming sorrow at his master’s deteriorating condition. Famous for playing the spoons, McCoy showed off this talent throughout, but by the time he was soaked through in the storm he was barely able to raise a smile anymore, shouting his jokes at Lear in frustrated hope. The first act ended with his collapsing onto a bench sobbing while Gloucester watched, before soldiers arrived to take the Earl away at gunpoint. Laughing at the wretched figure of the Fool, they stood him up and put a rifle to his head, before having a better idea. Taking him to a strut that stood stage-left, they stood him on a chair, put a rope around his neck and hanged him there and then. As the house lights came up for the interval, he continued to swing there the audience appalled at the sight, and he wasn’t taken down for some minutes. While this isn’t the first time the Fool has been hanged onstage, I doubt it has ever been quite so moving.

I could talk about this production for hours- the chilling moment where Kent marched off on his ‘journey with a pistol loaded, ready to end it as soon as he left our sight, the beautiful death scene that left the audience emotionally gutted and mostly unable to even stand for an ovation, the maid who was dragged offstage to be raped by Lear’s soldiers and was twitchy and petrified for the remainder of the play, the real downpour of water that drenched Lear and the Fool (and us!) and the excellent performance as Gloucester by William Gaunt, bloody onstage blinding included. My only criticism was the unjustifiably noisy and disruptive scene changes- the setting up of Edgar’s shelter at the back of the stage was so loud that I couldn’t even hear the scene at the front between Edmund and Cornwall (it sounds picky to criticise a scene change, but do ask anyone who was sitting in the side sections of the stalls, and they’ll agree). That doesn’t matter in the end, though, for this was a truly amazing experience. The hype, I humbly admit, was justified.

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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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