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February 26, 2012

Much Ado about Nothing (Demi–Paradise Productions) @ Lancaster Castle

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Location can be a blessing or a curse for a production. Site-specific theatre is one thing, where the play is written or adapted specifically for the area in which it will be realised; but Shakespeare transplanted into grand locations can run the risk of not mapping consistently onto its surroundings, or of the scenery overwhelming the performance. As such, I was interested to see how Demi-Paradise Productions managed the balance in their new Much Ado about Nothing, staged at the spectacular Lancaster Castle.

It’s fair to say that the scenery was the star of the production, and to its credit the company had thought carefully about the arrangement of space and the specificity of location. The central aborted wedding scene took place in the adjacent Priory Church, decorated as if for a wedding, and the splendour of the surroundings gave Claudio’s violent rejection of Hero an almost sacrilegious feel. The working Crown Court of the castle provided the location for the arraignment of Conrade and Borachio, with the audience seated as jurors and witnesses while the defendants took their appropriate places in the boxes. More often, however, it was the shape of the spaces rather than their specificity that impressed. The famous Shire Hall in which the opening and closing scenes were set, with its splendid roof and portraits, rather distracted from the action. More successful were the two overhearing scenes, located in an ancient torture chamber, Hadrian's Tower. While the memories of that place (chains hung from the walls) jarred with the tone of the scenes, the cramped quarters force an intimacy on actors and audience that drew out attention to the nuances of the performances.

Despite the distractions of the environment, and of the necessity to undertake reasonable walks between scenes, the performances still shone through. This was a traditional production, with a generically “period” setting that tended most strongly towards Regency (thus evoking an Austenian feel in the country dancing and wedding preparations). Costumes established that this was a play about the English privileged classes, and the company maintained a holiday atmosphere throughout. While the very safe romantic (if not Romantic) approach risked dullness, the company’s facility with the dynamics of its space benefitted it tremendously.

The standout was the first, cramped overhearing scene. With the audience arranged in traverse on crowded benches, the actors had a tiny gangway in which to perform. The torture chamber sat at the foot of the tower, and a viewing gallery above allowed Richard Hand's Benedick to appear early, looking down on the trapped audience below. When the lower level filled with the men, Benedick sneaked down and spent the scene moving around the audience, peering out and, in one memorable moment, screaming as James Jowett's Claudio stamped hard on his outstretched hand, his voice blending with Claudio’s own shout of “Oh!” In the tiny environment, though, the actors were able to layer their performances with expression. George Telfer's Don John entered the space to report Hero’s infidelity, and Claudio stepped in close to him, their noses practically touching, their eyes gazing hard into one another’s. The energy and intensity of this moment, and others liked it, made this a very immediate Much Ado, foregrounding the imaginative psychology and emotional import of the plot.

The same could be said of the wedding scene, in which the three-dimensional space allowed for a degree of audience choice in what was viewed. Immediately prior to the scene, some of my companions noticed Don John and Nicola Jayne Ingram's Margaret in the foyer of the castle, the former giving the latter harsh instruction; a moment I missed as we were swept past to the church. Inside the church, we were able to watch Margaret reacting, ashen-faced, to Hero’s disgrace, and the face of the priest as he stepped back slightly from the action and began assessing his options.

The majority of the performances had gusto if not experimental invention. Gemma North's Beatrice was unglamorous but lively, quick-witted and with an amusing range of scornful facial expressions. Hand's Benedick, meanwhile, was wired and cutting, with an unusual tendency towards maturity that manifested in his calm, quiet responses to Beatrice and Claudio in the second half. Yet the two had clear fun with their wooing, Benedick in particular revelling in the silliness of the rhyming scene. Lisa-Marie Hoctor's Hero was surprisingly similar in energy and confidence to Beatrice, taking a lively role in dancing and plotting, and in manipulating Claire Lever's Ursula during the overhearing scene, who was deliberately presented as an appalling actress to add to the comic effect. Perhaps the biggest surprise, though, was Jowett's Claudio, who had an aggressive impetuosity to him that rendered the character slightly dangerous when squaring up to Don John and Benedick. Claudio’s intensity and self-assurance made the revelation of Don John’s plot a particular blow, reducing him to a broken shadow of himself.

Among the other performances, Telfer's Don John stood out: a dignified, older villain with a sardonic and authoritative air. In an early scene, Nicholas Camm's Borachio overstepped himself with the ingenuity of his plot and the seated John held out his hand to be helped up. As Borachio pulled him to his feet, John suddenly stepped forward and forced Borachio back against a wall, re-establishing his authority in what felt to me an unnecessarily physical show of strength. However, there remained a sense throughout the play of the threat posed by John.

More amusing were Howard Chadwick's Dogberry and Ingram's Verges, played as bickering husband and wife. These scenes were played as pure slapstick, and were often amusing, particularly in Dogberry’s patronising apologies for his wife. However, their scenes were often milked long past acceptability, particularly at the opening of the arraignment scene when the two characters mimed along to an offstage chorus of folk songs for no discernible or amusing reason. The more Punch-and-Judy-esque aspects of these characters did serve to mitigate any seriousness occasioned in the main plot however.

The strength of the local actors, almost all with broad Lancashire accents, was in their easy familiarity with each other. The scripted improvisation that characterises Much Ado, a play in which characters frequently ‘forget’ lines or misspeak, here felt easy and natural, the company evoking the formal dynamics of the Regency-era dating game and creating a sense of genuine investment in each other. This is, I think, one of the more difficult effects for an ensemble to achieve, and the seemingly genuine reactions went a long way towards helping an embattled audience warm to the play.

The main problem of the production was its length. At around three and a half hours, and with a great deal of walking and movement between scenes, the action felt dragged out and too leisurely, becoming at times almost pageant-like in its slow progression of scenes. As a tour of Lancaster Castle this was phenomenal; as a coherent production of Much Ado, it lacked the focus and pace to be truly great. However, some fine performances and an inventive use of space made this a pleasant experience. While not revolutionising the play for me, it did serve to bring a personal touch to the play while also showcasing a glorious venue.

November 10, 2011

Much Ado About Nothing (Mappa Mundi/Theatr Mwldan) @ Lakeside Arts Centre

Writing about web page

Expectations were set high by Welsh company Mappa Mundi's self-description of its work: "gloriously irreverent, populist and accessible." A fun-loving Much Ado is always to be welcomed, and the setting - Britain between the wars, a culture where women have been taking on traditional men's roles - offered an interesting take on the traditional war between the sexes.

Much Ado poster

In the event, the production offered little in the way of irreverence, although populist and accessible it certainly was. This was a straight and surprisingly sober Much Ado that presented the play clearly and amusingly, but too often was just a little dull.

The small company (nine actors) made for some odd casting decisions, particularly as John Cording's Leonato ended up trying to marry Hero and Claudio himself, and interrupting his own questions. Conrade, Ursula, Antonio, Balthasar and the Watch (apart from Dogberry and Verges) were all cut, and as a result lead characters ended up making some uncharacteristic decisions: Claudio sang for the prince, and Benedick was the one who came up with the plan to conceal Hero.

In the latter case, this was particularly indicative of the rather serious portrayal of Benedick - and, indeed, Beatrice - in this production. For the first time I've ever seen, no-one laughed at the line "Kill Claudio", which came naturally out of a much weightier connection between the two. Liam Tobin and Lynne Seymour were rarely laugh-out-loud funny, and the overhearing scenes were particularly tortured, as the two crawled about the stage holding chairs above their heads and similar. The banter was reasonably snappy, but what instead emerged was a maturer, quieter relationship.

The wartime setting ultimately translated to little more than Beatrice wearing trousers and the recasting of Dogberry and Verges as women, who cackled comically over handbags and "naughty" villains as they played at being police. However, it lent a weariness to proceedings that saw men and women alike looking for companionship. For Beatrice and Benedick, conflict was a slow delay to their getting together; for Gwawr Loader's Hero and Robin Waters's Claudio, it was a more serious betrayal of trust at a time when people needed nothing more than someone to trust.

As such, the better parts of the production were those that touched on the edgier aspects of the play. Claudio's hatred for a distraught Hero was topped only by Leonato's shocking rage at his fallen daughter, although the culpability of Don Pedro and Claudio was mitigated by Borachio's wooing of Margaret being staged, with Margaret carefully positioned so the onlookers could not get a clear sight, and a gratuitous "You are my Hero" was added. More interesting was Don Pedro's proposal to Beatrice, which was played as a genuine spontaneous decision, and was met with Beatrice's hysterical laughter, to Pedro's embarrassment.

The production was nothing more than occasionally interesting, though. It rarely sparked, its gentle humour not making up for a lack of bite in the barbs. Yet its aims for lightness meant that it was never able to capitalise on its more interesting edges. As an accessible, clear touring Much Ado, this was ideal, but it never transcended those very modest aims.

November 04, 2009

Days of Significance (RSC) @ The Belgrade Theatre

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Roy Williams' play debuted as part of the RSC's Complete Works Festival back in early 2007, and it's a pleasure to have the chance to revisit a production I enjoyed so much the first time round. The play has gone from strength to strength since its initial short run, and it is testament to the perceived importance of the subject matter (the effect of the Iraq conflict on ordinary Brits) that Williams has been given the opportunity to extensively rewrite the play, ensuring that it remains up-to-the-minute and in tune with the concerns in the news.

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The plot remained straightforward, and is worth recapping in some detail. On a Friday night, two lairy groups of lads and lasses caused havoc on a night out on the tiles. This was the part of the play that was loosely inspired by Much Ado about Nothing: Ben and Jamie (Benedick and Claudio) were soldiers enjoying a final night of fun before shipping out to Iraq. Dan (Don John), their friend, was against the war and bitter at them for going, while Steve and Tony (loosely Borachio and Conrade) just wanted to get plastered. Among the girls, Trish (Beatrice) was the sex-mad ringleader who once had a fling with Ben, while Hannah (Hero) was starting university and under a great deal of pressure to be the "good" girl. Jamie and Hannah fell in love over the course of the night, and Trish and Ben hooked up again. However, a jealous Dan used the careless gossip of Clare (Margaret) and Steve against "Hannah the slapper", resulting in Jamie insulting her in front of the group. Although everyone was eventually reconciled, Jamie and Ben were still due to ship out in a couple of days.

The play's second act moved to Iraq, framed by two video messages from Ben to Trish; the first newly-arrived and excited, the second jaded and haunted by ominous hints at a revenge mission against the killers of a friend. In between a scene saw Ben, Jamie (an addition to this scene since the play's original production) and two other soldiers, wounded and scared, hiding after an ambush to wait for back-up. As they sheltered, it transpired that Ben had shot a child in cold blood on suspicion of helping the enemy. The scene confronted in a realistic way the atrocities that happen in the heat of combat, and the various strategies used to justify them afterwards: Ben rewrote history to justify his actions, Jamie froze and cowered, their Sergeant threatened to tell all but died of his wounds instead.

Part Three was entirely redesigned from the original production. Originally, this was an abstract scene which saw Hannah stood in a bare square, holding simultaneous conversations with Jamie, Dan, Trish and her father-in-law Lenny. Now, the scene was far more conventional, set at Clare and Steve's wedding. Ben had died in Iraq, apparently heroically, while Jamie was home facing trial for prisoner abuse, keeping secret the fact that Ben had been the ringleader. The scene remained focussed on Hannah, as she tried to reconcile her abhorrence of Jamie's actions with her love for him and wish to support him. Reverting to the "Hannah the Slapper" tag in an attempt to escape the pressures put on her, she was sleeping with Dan - whose views on the war she now shared - while at the same time hating him for his disdain for Jamie and Ben. Meanwhile, a grieving Trish was bitter at what she perceived as Hannah's abandoning of her for her university friends. While Hannah fielded the attacks on all fronts, Jamie pitched up at the wedding, only to end up in a fist fight with Dan. The play ended with Hannah's resolve to accompany Jamie to his court hearing, prioritising love above all else.

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While Williams protests in the programme that the connections with Much Ado are very loose, the play actually provided a committed and fascinating reading of the play in its first act. The bickering of Beatrice and Benedick translated perfectly to the politics of city nightlife, with Ben and Trish balancing their lust for each other with the need to not lose face in front of their gangs. Insults, as Trish said, were just part of the foreplay. The setting also allowed for an interesting inversion of the slandering plot: here, in a flurry of text messages, overheard toilet conversations and petty jealousy, it became spontaneous rather than coldly-calculated, and Dan's decision to go ahead with the plot was motivated as much by love for his mates, leading to anger at their choice to go to war, as by jealousy and spite.

Most potently, though, this was a deeply pessimistic view of Much Ado, in which love was fleeting, flawed and conditional, and where "happy endings" were only pauses in a longer action which led ultimately to death and disgrace. It showed a Hero-figure breaking under the stress of accusations, parental expectations and romantic disillusionment and embracing the identity constructed for her by her detractors. It showed a Benedick whose fiery temperament and casual approach to life resulted in him committing unspeakable atrocities, and a Claudio whose weakness of character and susceptibility to suggestion found him following his friend in those actions. Perhaps most distressingly, it gave us a Beatrice who only let her guard down for Benedick and was hurt badly by it, and who consoled herself by sloping of with other girls' partners at the wedding feast. Pervading all was an emotional desperation and isolation that displayed, with a disheartening impression of truth, the ability of the war to destroy the lives of the people it touched.

Running through this was an underlying concern about education. All characters in the play were working-class, with Hannah's posh university friends pointedly absent from the stage. The arrogant, obnoxious and violently-disposed Dan was also the only character who understood the politics and motivations behind the war, who went on peace demonstrations and openly criticised his friends for not thinking about their actions. It's the liberal viewpoint that we are perhaps normally most encouraged to sympathise with; and yet here his words - and the reported words of Hannah's friends - felt removed and ignorant, theoretical without an understanding of the realities of war. This was contrasted with Ben and Jamie's confused rhetoric about going "for their country" and proving themselves to be men, without a real understanding of what they were fighting for. In this kind of argument, no-one could be right; Williams' point seemed rather to be that those who talk most about the war are those who it least affects, while those who are deliberately targetted to be directly involved in fighting are the ones disadvantaged by education or an understanding of the concerns. People in this world either think, or do; not both.

With an excellent young cast and a good-humoured (and gruesomely fluid!) recreation of a night on the town, Days of Significance proved it could entertain, and the play provided a surprising amount of comedy throughout, from Clare's hideous karaoke at her wedding to Sean the soldier's claims that a photo of Victoria Beckham was actually his girlfriend. The comedy, though, came from seeing ourselves in situations that felt all too familiar, making the intrusions of death and horror all the more powerful. Humour was, for the people of this play, far more a defence mechanism than an expression of any real joy.

The rewritten third act largely improved the play, turning what had been a rather preachy, abstract scene into something more dramatically compelling. A few crucial changes also served to make things more interesting: in the original version, Hannah's stepfather Lenny had admitted to being in love with her; here, she came onto him as he tried to tell her she was worth something, deliberately trying to degrade hersel in an attempt to hide from being the good, responsible girl he wanted her to be. Jamie's attempts to reintegrate himself into 'normal' society by attending the wedding also broke up the attention to Hannah in the final act, making the alienation of the returned soldier apparent and visually showing the conflict that Hannah faced in choosing between the different worlds that fought for her attention.

The most sobering realisation is that Days of Significance is still as relevant today as the troops are pulled out of Afghanistan as it was in the immediate aftermath of the Iraq war. As an appropriation of Shakespeare, it took the essential themes of Much Ado, intelligently transposed them and followed them through to seemingly inevitable and shocking conclusions. As an RSC production, it showed the company engaging conscientiously with a section of society who perhaps wouldn't normally be in attendance at the Courtyard. As a performance in its own right, it was skilfully played and engaging. As a piece of work, though, its importance transcended theatre, as all good political theatre should. By engaging with war from a defiantly street-level perspective, evaluating the human cost in terms other than body counts, it reminded us that this is an issue which affects Britain's streets as well as Basra's, and gave stark warnings for those of us who intellectually engage with the war that, without this perspective, our theorising is simply irrelevant.

A version of this review originally appeared at Shakespeare Revue.

January 19, 2009

Much Ado in Coventry

WUDS are doing another production of Much Ado about Nothing this term. I say another; only people who've been at Warwick four or five years will remember the last one, which was performed in the Arts Centre studio. I remember that production for the prominence it gave to Margaret, whose dilemma regarding the plot to discredit Hero became one of the central concerns. It also had two wonderfully physical overhearing scenes, with actors joining together to form the trees behind which Benedick and Beatrice hid.

Whether the new production matches up to the last one is, of course, impossible to say at this point - I don't know if it's even cast yet! However, what should make it exciting is that WUDS are leaving campus and playing at the B2, the Belgrade's smaller theatre, where Scenes from a Marriage played last year. It's a much bigger audience than the Arts Centre studio allows, so hopefully it'll do well!

December 16, 2007

Much Ado About Nothing @ The National Theatre

The National’s decision to put on a new Much Ado about Nothing as their main house show over the Christmas period seems to be a slightly odd one, coming so soon after Marianne Elliott’s hugely successful production for the RSC which is still garnering award nominations. Clearly, however, Nicholas Hytner felt there was still something to be drawn out of the play, and Simon Russell Beale and Zoe Wanamaker head up an impressive cast that also includes Oliver Ford Davies, Mark Addy and Trevor Peacock. Big names, a familiar play and the lavish resources of the Olivier stage- surely a hit in the making.

The initial response to the casting, at least in my case, was “Aren’t they a bit old?” However, Wanamaker in particular used her relative seniority to great advantage. This Beatrice was getting on in years, and seemed to be at a point where she was regretting the militant single-ness of her younger years. Her comments on her past with Benedick were laced with regret, of opportunities missed, and her wit was now a screen to mask her loneliness. Yet Wanamaker didn’t allow her character to descent into self-pity, only bringing these elements occasionally to the surface. Here, Beatrice lived for other people’s happiness and entertainment, revelling in the comedy she created and trying not to focus on her own situation.

Simon Russell Beale, last seen by me on stage in Spamalot, was thoroughly entertaining as Benedick, using a similar mixture of bemusement and knowing charm to that which worked so well for him as King Arthur. His performance was genial, his insults mostly coming across as playful rather than cruel. He particularly shone in the ever-funny overhearing scene, hiding behind the slatted walls of the set to listen in. Teetering around a pool as he tried to hide, it seemed inevitable that he would eventually fall in, yet continually avoided it. The three gentlemen eventually left, leaving him free to come out into the open. Suddenly, however, they returned from separate angles, leaving him with no choice but to deliberately and spectacularly dive-bomb into the pool, slowly peeking his head across to wince at the audience while the conspirators laughed at him. Yes, it was easy, yes, it was obvious, yes, it was milked for all it was worth, but that didn’t stop it being absolutely hysterical. Topping it off by leaning seductively, yet still dripping, against a wall while Beatrice stared at him in disbelief, Russell Beale confirmed that he has a full grasp of comic timing.

Having seen several touring productions, I get frustrated sometimes at what I consider to be the unnecessarily cluttered stages of the National’s productions. I felt the same at first about Vicki Mortimer’s set for this production, a huge piece of decking split by slatted wood into four major sections and external areas, which revolved continuously. It seemed too much, but Hytner utilised it to great effect, particularly as the characters walked through rooms, the stage revolving to keep track of them while other business and scene-changes were conducted in the now-hidden areas. It was fussy, but gave an impression of fluidity and also of activity. The large cast had plenty of extras, meaning that servants were generally bustling about, allowing the preparations leading up to the wedding to be hinted at. The atmosphere of Messina was well-evoked, a balmy warmth bathing the action, and the revolving stage allowed for great contrast in the evening between the brightly lit masque outside and the shadowy decking outside where Don John conducted his business.

The darker elements of the play were given plenty of weight, and the wedding scene was well-pitched, edgy rather than hysterical. Oliver Ford Davies shone as Leonato, with good support from John Burgess’ Antonio who challenged Claudio by bringing in an enormous sword, as big as himself. Claudio and Hero’s individual performances didn’t particularly stand out, but their story worked well: it was played straight and both were believable in their responses to each other. Typically, it was again Wanamaker and Russell Beale who shone here- she distraught at her cousin’s fate, having invested so much in it herself in her bid to ignore her own situation, and he hesitant and divided, unsure of whether to follow his prince as he stormed out or to stay and comfort the woman he loved.

The other pleasant surprise was in Dogberry and Verges, played by Mark Addy and Trevor Peacock. Addy’s Dogberry was the straightest version of the character I’ve ever seen- the malapropisms and pomposity were present and correct, but the comedy was efficient, quick and effective rather than dragged out to agonising lengths as can sometimes happen. As a result, the Watch scenes were actually amusing, and Peacock’s bumbling performance also worked well.

The result was solid enough, if not life-changing. It’s the most money I’ve spent on a theatre ticket all year, and I was rewarded with an enjoyable Much Ado that played it safe. It won’t be remembered, but as a fun evening out it hit the mark.

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.

January 21, 2007

Days of Significance @ The Swan Theatre

Welcome to 2007! We’re in the final stretch of the Complete Works now, down to the last twelve productions, plus a few repeat viewings. Still a little way to go before I break out the champagne though…..

Yesterday’s production was the fourth of the main response plays, a major new commission by Roy Williams called ‘Days Of Significance’. It was also the final chance both to see the excellent ‘Winter’s Tale’/’Pericles’ ensemble and to experience the Swan in promenade. It wasn’t too crowded today, with plenty of space to walk round and feel like part of the action.

The play is based on ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, and is split into three parts. ‘Much Noise’ is basically a 45 minute retelling of ‘Much Ado’, with Trish and Ben heading up two gangs of lads and lasses on a big Saturday night out, with the goal of getting as wasted as possible. It was a very bare telling of the story, Williams keeping only those elements which drove forward his own narrative. Ben and Jamie, the Benedick and Claudio characters, were about to leave for Basra in Iraq on their first army tour, and the night was dedicated to giving them a good send off. With them was Dan (Don John), an anti-war student who came into conflict with them over the reasons for the war. The girls meanwhile were out for sex and alcohol, with Trish (Beatrice) the lairiest of the group while Hannah ‘The Slapper’ (Hero) showed herself to have a more sensitive streak, giving money to a drunken man flashing his penis and restraining the other girls somewhat.

Ashley Rolfe (Jamie)

The pre-show warnings of adult content and strong language were well deserved. This was the Saturday night clubbing world of working-class early-20s kids, illustrated in on-stage throwings-up, graphic sexual language, bodies rolling in rubbish on a park bench, barely-contained violence and obscenities every other word. It was not a glamorous picture, bringing out the nasty sides of all the characters. Plot was translated, too- the rumours about Hannah were not of infidelity but of thinking Jamie was a wuss, and Trish merely asked Ben to “beat the crap” out of Jamie rather than kill him. Amongst it all, we heard the beginnings of a debate about the second Iraq war, as the youths tried to come to terms with what Ben and Jamie were leaving for.

The reconciliations between the two couples ended the first half of the play, but here Williams kept going. We skipped to Iraq in a scene framed by two video diaries of Ben writing home to Trish, becoming gradually more disillusioned with his life out there, his voice hollowing out as the brutalities of the conflict sunk in. The scene itself was a gory one of Ben, cornered with two other soldiers, one of whom killed himself to allow the others to run. It transpired that the impulsive Ben had shot through children in order to get at insurgents – the first hint of how the youthful exuberance and amoralism of the kids translated to the wider context. The scene ended with he and Sean, another soldier, running off to their deaths.

Danny Dalton (Sean)

The final sections of the play, ‘A Parting Of The Ways’, took place in a square in the centre of the audience. Actors stepped into the square when ‘on’, and when ‘off’, stood outside the square looking in. The play became Hannah’s story, as she stayed permanently within the circle debating the war with four other people. This was what the play had been leading up to- a many-sided discussion of war, looking at how the characters we know from Shakespeare might have been affected had it happened to them.

Hannah had gone to college and become involved in anti-war discussion with her student friends, and the scene primarily turned around whether she was going to go to court with Jamie- who was being tried for torturing prisoners in Iraq, albeit under orders. Meanwhile Trish, mourning Ben, attacked her for her views, upset at people criticising the war in which her lover had been killed. Dan, meanwhile, argued the other side with her, condemning all those who had made the war happen, while her stepfather Lenny complicated things emotionally by inadvertently revealing the secret love he’d been nursing for her. The effect was one of a moral and intelligent person being caught in the middle of extreme conflicting views on the events and being forced to make decisions about where she stood, while knowing that the emotional pressure would tear her whatever she decided.

While the stepfather was well-played by Nigel Cooke, this was the aspect I liked least. Not only did it seem very obvious from the start of the play, as Hannah stripped off next to Lenny to wash her top, but it seemed to take away from the point of the play. Yes, it was an added emotional pressure on Hannah in the final scene, but it felt unnecessary, one controversy too many.

Otherwise, this was a thought-provoking and interesting response to ‘Much Ado’, which used the play as a springboard to get to its true subject matter. I’m not entirely sure that Williams was trying to get a political point across. The play felt anti-war, but the biggest anti-war exponent was Dan, by far the slimiest and least likeable character. Rather, this was a play about attitudes, about the pressure put on young people to believe strongly in things without knowing anything about them. Ben and Jamie’s impetuousness and hot tempers led them to committing atrocities in Iraq, but at the same time we couldn’t simpy condemn them- this is what society had made them. The play effectively showed the impact of the war at home, and in many ways seemed to bemoan the lack of traditional values of honour and discipline that, at the very least, helped draw a line between soldiers and monsters.

Possibly the most telling moment of the play was when Lenny, the chip shop owner, told the boys as they joked about going off to war that, with their attitudes, they were little more than “fast food” themselves.

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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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