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June 10, 2012

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

Writing about web page http://bloodandthundertheatre.org.uk/#/productions/4560980158

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


May 29, 2012

The Merchant of Venice (Habima) @ Shakespeare's Globe. Part 2: The Production

Follow-up to The Merchant of Venice (Habima) @ Shakespeare's Globe. Part 1: Outer Frame from The Bardathon

It’s impossible to divorce context from production. Immediately after Dromgoole left the stage, still being applauded for his pre-emptive shutting down of protests, the actors of Habima emerged onto the Globe stage and called for a welcome, whipping the audience immediately into further applause, foot-stamping and cheering. After taking a bow, the actors, dressed as Renaissance-era Italians, donned bright red carnival masks and began singing, dancing and creating a festive atmosphere. This revelry continued as Jacob Cohen’s Shylock entered the stage and, in high spirits, the Christian carnival-makers surrounded him, pushed him to the ground and kicked him mercilessly in the stomach. Only at the point of violence did the crowd fall silent; but how easily the same jubilant ribaldry that had been targeted at Friends of Palestine was co-opted into the abuse of a Jew. Habima usefully pointed up the ease with which we are told what to think and can become implicated in abuse and suppression.

How many, I wonder, noticed the audacity of audience members who could shush a Palestinian protester and laugh at him as he was escorted out of the theatre to calls of “Piss off”; and then turn and nod sagely as a Jewish protester (in the trial scene) was silenced and mocked by Gratiano as he was escorted out? What has been learned from a production so concerned with suppression, if suppression is taking place within the auditorium?

Habima’s fine production of Merchant pulled no punches in its depiction of anti-Semitism, with both Shylock and Tubal manhandled and abused as a matter of course by a group of selfish and wasteful Christians. Alon Ophir’s Antonio, in particular, was sickening. This tyrannical figure refused to sit in Shylock’s chair, decorated with a Star of David, and grabbed the frail, elderly usurer by the throat as he vowed he would abuse him again. Even while trussed up in the trial scene, he leered down at Shylock, a smile of satisfaction playing on his lips as Shylock’s plans were thwarted.

The “bonds” of this production were made literal on two levels. Ropes and pulleys hung all around the set, used initially to demonstrate Portia’s (Hila Feldman) entrapment. Standing on a chair centre-stage, her six suitors gathered around the edges of the stage and held the ends of ropes attached to her corset, positioning her at the centre of a tangled web of controlling attachments. For the trial scene, Antonio was placed on the same chair, but stripped to his waist and clipped to ropes that snaked up the pillars and across the yard, literally strung up by bonds that linked the entire building. Into these same bonds Shylock was later forced, hanging limply amidst the jeering Christians.

The other bonds were physicalised as reams of computer printouts, contracts to be signed by Antonio in the first instance, but also by Bassanio, who was presented with a disturbingly realistic head representing Portia and an enormous wad of contracts, which he began scrutinising instead of kissing her, to her dismay. The focus of the men on letters and contracts was a running theme, revisited at the end as Nir Zelichowski’s Lorenzo failed to look once at Liraz Chamami’s Jessica once he had received news of his (his) good fortune. The massive contracts also became Shylock’s punishment, Gratiano draping them over Shylock and leaving him to stumble, slowly and blindly, offstage following the trial.

The prejudice running throughout the production was not always held up to adequate critique, however. While Portia and Nerissa’s dismissive attitude towards Jessica extended to even forgetting her name, Jessica’s disappearance at the production’s close left unresolved a growing problematisation that remained unclear. The biggest change to the text was the creation of a conflict between Jessica and Lorenzo that saw her threaten to leave him, and was alluded to throughout the ring incident as she screamed at her husband, but I was unclear as to exactly what she was objecting to, and the sadness she showed on hearing of her father’s misfortune was kept upstage and unremarked. Far more problematic was the treatment of the suitors. The establishment of these scenes was entirely amusing, as a team of sycophantic make-up artists and tailors dressed actors up in stereotypical national costume. However, Danny Leshman blacked up as Morocco, covering himself in black make-up which even rubbed off on Portia, to her disgust. The laughter at this was disturbing, and the production didn’t seem to have a point to make here about racism, leaving this problematic device uncriticised and, apparently, amusing to much of the audience. A similar, though less loaded, approach informed Yoav Donat’s appearance as Arragon, moustachioed and screaming “Ole!”

The casket scenes were otherwise amusing. Human actors played the caskets; for Morocco, an actor wore the gold casket on his head and carried the others; while Arragon and Bassanio were both presented with three independent caskets. Morocco removed the gold box from his man’s head to reveal the actor wearing a skull that snapped at his fingers. Arragon unveiled a fool carrying the poem in his mouth; and this fool subsequently sprang up and began mimicking the distraught suitor. The collective mockery of the foreign suitors by the assembled court and the Death/Fool heads fed into the critique of the Christians’ prejudice more broadly, but the cartoon caricatures of Morocco and Arragon stood in problematic contrast to the dignified Shylock.

Cohen, diminutive and quietly spoken, was a victim through and through, only taking command of the stage during the “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech where he roared defiance at Salarino and Salerio (Leshman and Donat again, interestingly bringing the bodies of the three racially abused victims together) who backed up in shock at the effect of their ribbing. Elsewhere, the performance aimed for pathos. We were privy to his moans on discovering Jessica’s flight, and the production closed with Antonio casting a satisfied look over the abandoned stage and leaving, followed by Cohen emerging and taking a long, slow walk around the edges of the stage in utter silence. Similar pathos was aimed for in Jessica’s performance, as following her flight she was seen repeatedly in tears, ignored or scorned by the Christians.

Despite all of the above, this was for the most part a highly amusing production. The high energy of the Christians was combined with a physical inventiveness, particularly in the representation of gondolas by actors standing in a line and side-stepping in sync while one pretended to row. Tomer Sharon’s Launcelot was extremely entertaining throughout, debating freely with the audience in his first appearance, snogging the disembodied false head of Portia’s counterfeit, and interposing himself inconveniently between Jessica and Lorenzo. Yet he was also the only character who paid Jessica attention; immediately before the interval, he sat downstage with her and they watched together as Antonio pleaded with Shylock for succour.

A group next to me were aghast during the trial scene, crying out as Shylock went to take Antonio’s flesh, which rather spoke to the vulnerability of the strung-up bodies presented. The scene struggled to recover following the interventions from the pit of “Hath not a Palestinian eyes?” and the subsequent jeering of the crowd as more protesters were evicted; and perhaps because of this, the role of Portia and Nerissa, who were kept to one side of the stage, seemed relatively unimportant. I was drawn throughout the scene instead to Aviv Alush’s Gratiano, who moved freely about the stage and mocked Shylock mercilessly, as well as appealing to the Duke and Advocates who stood in the audience galleries. Alush’s overt prejudice throughout the scene, and Shylock’s slow collapse under his assault and the smug glares of Antonio, seemed to be far more important.

Rinat Matatov’s childlike Nerissa (strikingly reminiscent of Shirley Henderson) was a sometimes sullen, sometimes sparkling counterpart to Feldman’s upright Portia throughout. The servant took pleasure in bringing a knee to Gratiano’s groin following his loss of the ring, and in teasing her mistress about Bassanio in earlier scenes. Yet women were sidelined throughout this performance, left rather to punish their fickle men either directly by slapping or indirectly by walking out. Happy endings were denied as the banter and laddish mockery of women and foreigners found no place in Belmont, which demanded maturity. Yet as the men all fell to their rings and letters, devouring material possessions to the exclusion of their wives, it was clear that the selfish nature of these men would resist education.

Have I silenced the protests? Certainly the bulk of the protests were themselves silent, and for much of the first half I and those around me divided our attention between the action on stage and the silent stance of the group in the middle gallery with masking tape over their mouths, who did not reappear for the second half (perhaps removed). The performance of the protest in the pit and galleries drew the attention of all, and the actors themselves were clearly aware of it. Interestingly, however, the content of the protests during the performance was not directed at Habima themselves as far as I could see, concentrating on the broader “Free Palestine” message than challenging Habima’s own complicity in performing to Israeli-only groups in the settlements. By remaining silent and using few words, the protests insteade aimed to draw attention to their act of resistance, attention they maintained (even when rendered inactive) for the entire performance. The final applause of the company lasted a long while, a mutual celebration between audience and actors of the successful completion of the performance. Yet anyone watching carefully, who had listened to a production that spoke eloquently of the silencing of dissenting voices, should have had serious questions about the anger with which the performance’s own dissenters were greeted.


The Merchant of Venice (Habima) @ Shakespeare's Globe. Part 1: Outer Frame

Reviewing an event such as this evening’s performance at the Globe of The Merchant of Venice by Habima (Israel’s national theatre) poses serious ethical questions. If the review focuses on the entire experience – the preliminaries, the tensions, the various kinds of performance taking place both outside and within the auditorium – then the production itself, Habima’s work, risks being sidelined. If, however, the review ignores the “outer frame” (as Susan Bennett might term it) and concentrates on the “main event”, what was intended to be seen, then it is compromised in two ways. Firstly, the experience of every audience member was shaped and formed by the extraordinary framing of the production, that was inseparable both in terms of the mindset with which we entered the Globe, and in terms of how interwoven the subsequent acts were with the main performance. Secondly, in ignoring the elements that were not legitimised or planned for, I would be colluding in the silencing of a protest that, whatever you might think about it, had important things to say and deserves to be reported.

This review, then, will be of unusual length. It is subjective, as all reviews are, but it is unashamedly so. It is also political, if only insofar as I support the right to protest and the right to express views peacefully. I did not participate in any of the protests this evening, either in the pro-Israel camp or among the Free Palestine lobby; it's a situation which I choose not to actively campaign in. Nor, however, did I participate (as did many of my fellow audience members, with that self-righteous, zealous passive aggression that only late trains, queue jumpers and people who talk at the “wrong time” draw out of the British) in the active silencing and removal of the protesters. The heavy-handedness of the policing of tonight’s performance was at least as disruptive as the mostly silent protests themselves, and I have never been in a theatrical situation where I have felt more intimidated, watched and surrounded by hate. And for the most part, that wasn’t coming from the protesters. This part will deal with the framing, and I’ll focus on the performance itself in a follow-up tomorrow.

I spent the day on the South Bank, where a heavy police and private security presence began to make itself felt from 4pm. At 4.30pm I found myself locked inside the Globe building during an apparent incident, which meant no-one was allowed in or out for some fifteen minutes. Shortly after, the Globe was cleared of all members of the public for a full security sweep (my thanks to an amusing and welcoming duty manager, who was a relief to deal with after the frankly extremely rude security team). Outside, crowd control barriers were being set up and the South Bank rearranged, heavily policed, to contain the anticipated protests.

Security gates
Security barriers set up on Bankside

Heavy disruption had been expected around Habima’s performances since they were announced. The company, I understand, has performed in occupied areas of Gaza, and is seen by many as a tool of the Israeli regime. I defer to those more knowledgeable than me to debate the rights and wrongs of the company’s actions; fundamentally, though, I had no desire to see the production boycotted. Does the Globe’s invitation legitimise an institution that assists in an illegal occupation? Very possibly; but its presence on the South Bank both gave a voice to Hebrew-language theatre and, more importantly, legitimised a peaceful protest. As the two lobbies gathered in cordoned-off areas on the South Bank, I collected a wide range of literature arguing for and against the right of these artists to perform to a London audience. In the context of a Festival such as Globe to Globe, there appears to me to be a solid argument for the value of debate; a debate which the production’s presence allowed to happen. Or, at least, should have.

Palestine protestPalestine protest
Protesters in the Palestinian camp

The protests on both sides were deeply felt and heated, perhaps unsurprisingly for a particularly hot May afternoon, but largely peaceful. Tempers frayed, however, during the bag checks, which began an hour and a half ahead of performance time. Information had been sent out to all ticketholders in advance to let us know that we would have to check all bags bigger than a handbag, and that none of our own food, drinks or anything that could be used to disrupt a performance would be allowed in. Full security gates were in place including metal detectors and pat-downs, and several of my fellow theatregoers argued strongly with the beleaguered security folk about their right to take in their own sandwiches. The fact that, inside, the Globe was charging £2 for a can of Coke and £1.50 for a bottle of water stung a little.

Israel protestIsrael protest
Protests in the pro-Israel camp

Relieved of bags, the Globe audience then had to cope being cooped up in rather too small a space for an hour until the doors opened. We were entertained during this time by the impressive human beatbox duo Sweet Combination, who sang and played at a volume significant enough to drown out any distant protest noise – although one group did manage to get a loudspeaker onto the Bankside pier to cause a little disruption. The heavy security presence remained somewhat intimidating, particularly in such close quarters, so it was a relief for doors to open and the crowd to spread out inside the theatre.

The last key element of framing came once the house was full and doors closed. Dominic Dromgoole emerged to welcome the audience. The very fact, of course, of the Artistic Director of the Globe coming out to address the crowd in person spoke to the unusual nature of this event, and for the most part he dealt with it appropriately and in good humour, hoping that we approved of the new front of house arrangements and welcoming us to the performance. However, I found myself troubled by some of the ways in which he framed the expectations for the evening. The Globe is used to dealing with disturbances, he said – pigeons, fainting, planes – and he asked the audience not to take it into its own hands to deal with any disturbances during this performance, as Security would do so. The security presence inside the theatre was exceptional, surrounding the stage itself, spread through the pit, and standing in almost every gangway in the galleries. To reduce the disruption of protesters pre-emptively to the accidental/occasional disruption of a pigeon was a rhetorical strategy I found unnecessarily demeaning.

Front of house
The new front of house arrangements (metal detectors and bag checks)

Dromgoole rightly pointed out that the actors onstage were neither politicians nor policy makers, to the approval of most of the crowd, and pointed out that anyone who disrupted the performance – or whose phone went off, an announcement delivered with emphatic glee – would be immediately evicted; but he asked the audience not to engage in any vigilantism. It's a safety caution that was important to make, and I was extremely pleased he asked the audience to ignore rather than confront protests; implicitly leaving interpretation to the individual spectator. These were artists telling a story, Dromgoole informed us, aiming to understand and to criticise, and to help make the world a better place. Now, however, while I can’t take issue with these sentiments, I found the appeal to a “better place” difficult to stomach coming from a man standing on a stage with the backing of a good fifty huge security attendants ready to evict anyone who disagreed or dared to disrupt. Whether or not the theatre is the appropriate place for this kind of protest became irrelevant for a moment; the heavy-handedness of the policing, and the gentle mockery which served to bind together an audience in derision of the Palestinian protesters, came across to me as a gesture of control and display of power that quashed any hope I had of a “better world”.

I’ll go on to the performance itself in a separate post, but I’ll deal with the protests here. About five minutes into the performance, banners and flags were unfurled in the galleries, and security acted quickly to remove the women displaying them. This was followed by a silent protest – a group stood to attention in the first gallery for the entire first half, masking tape over their mouths, presumably protesting at the silencing of the Palestinian voice. I was surprised to see this group left alone – they were non-disruptive, but so were the earlier flags; and actually, one woman in particular appeared to be obstructing the view of the person behind her, which on any other day would be cause for a steward’s intervention. Towards the end of the first half, following Bassanio’s success in the casket challenge, a younger group began unfurling banners in the pit and protested noisily when evicted. By this point, however, the rest of the audience seemed to be losing patience, and civilians began taking a turn at pointing out protesters to security and ordering them to shut up. This policing of the pit I found one of the most upsetting aspects of the evening; the audience turning in on itself over a question of etiquette, but with displays of aggression from the non-protesters that I found disheartening; security were quick to respond, but audience members felt the need to actively participate in shutting down the (silent) voices of the Palestinian protesters and, apparently, take satisfaction in being seen to do so.

The second half was much less disrupted, but more vocally when it was. During the trial scene, a gentleman standing next to me with an extraordinarily clear voice called out “Hath not a Palestinian eyes?”, and was followed by another. They left with very little trouble as soon as Security identified them and touched their arms, although I had the impression there was a little resistance. Obviously, the consciously disruptive nature of this form of protest made it more of an issue (within the conventions of British theatre etiquette) than the silent protests of the first half. However, the aggression of the audience towards this more deliberately disruptive incident was, again, perhaps even more unsettling. An angry cry of “Piss off!” was met by laughter – laughter – from around the theatre, as audience members joined in the jeering of the protesters as they were evicted. More encouragingly, one man shouted out to the flustered actors “We’re with you, keep going”. The support of the audience for the actors was encouraging; the bile displayed towards the protesters less so. As I was standing next to the men who shouted out, I felt the eyes of the audience on me, found myself at the business end of a dozen pointed fingers, and experienced something of the hostility directed at those who believe in something strongly enough that they feel the need to say it out loud.

When the performance ended, and we finally got through an initially badly organised bag reclaim procedure, the South Bank was still full of police. One group (silent when I saw them) was surrounded by police in a miniature kettle; while another woman screamed out about apartheid to the departing theatregoers.

I don’t like theatre to be disrupted. I dislike whispering, phones going off, antisocial reactions; it goes against the conventions I’ve been brought up in as a theatregoer - though to expect these in the Globe at any time is to fight a losing battle. But I’m an advocate of free speech and peaceful protest; and apart from the shouts during the trial scene, the protests outside and within the Globe space were largely silent and visual until removals began. I have never felt quite so intimidated, tense and uncomfortable at the behaviour of people around me as I did tonight at the Globe, and it was the aggressive interventions of the non-protesters rather than the protests themselves that prompted most of these feelings. The presence of such a system for controlling the reception for the production was such that, whether or not a protest had actually taken place, the presence of that which was being silenced was assumed. I am pleased for the sake of Habima that the disruption was minimal; I am glad that I had a chance to see this production. I just wish that the openness, freedom and generosity that have characterised so much of this particular set of cultural exchanges could have been more evident tonight on both sides.

Part 2: The Production


May 27, 2012

The Taming of the Shrew (Theatre Wallay) @ Shakespeare's Globe

"This is a sacred space" announced Salman Shahid, introducing Theatre Wallay's Globe to Globe production of The Taming of the Shrew. For the first time that I've seen in a Globe to Globe production, a member of the company came onto the stage to introduce the play and the company's honour at being here, before asking the musicians to play the Pakistani national anthem, to which a predominantly Urdu-speaking audience stood to attention. The joy and pride apparently felt by the company in being at the Globe translated into a confident, hysterical and moving performance, offering one of the finest Shrew I've yet seen.

In contemporary dress and peppered with modern jokes (one of Ghazi's (Gremio's) attempts to trump the offer of the disguised Mir (Tranio) involved promising a five-year entry visa to the UK), this was nonetheless surprisingly faithful to Shakespeare's play. Only a few of the extraneous servants at Petruchio's house were omitted, and for much of the play a non-Urdu speaker could follow the familiar play line-for-line. Yet a story of multiple suitors wooing a patriarch for the hands of his daughters rang true within this particular setting, taking on a tone of witty self-deprecation and boastful vaunting that made this a playful Shrew. Recent English-language productions have had a tendency to ramp up the explicit sex and violent comedy (see Propeller and the last two RSC versions), but this company brilliantly played the comedy straight, reading the play not as farce but as banter and romance, played against a painted backdrop of flying kites.

Key to this was Nadia Jamil's Qurat ul Aine, or Karin (Katherina). Karin was no monster, but a lively and independent daughter, who in an early scene with Karen David's Bina (Bianca) was more sinned against than sinning, as Bina first broke Karin's kite, then tussled with her over a shawl before going crying to Daddy when Shahid's Mian Basheer (Baptista) entered. Karin managed herself through threat rather than action, but straightaway established herself as an equal of Omair Rana's Rustam (Petruchio). As she walked around him, she allowed the audience to see her instant attraction, blowing out her cheeks and shaking her hands in approval, before composing herself as she came back into his line of sight. Their initial trading of barbs was full of laughter, the two delighting in their verbal sparring and enjoying the conflict. As Rustam crossed a line, however, Karin hit him twice in the face and took a knee to his groin, leaving him sprawled, but her shocked as he continued with his wooing regardless.

The openness of Karin contrasted with the conniving nature of Bina, who left Umer Naru's Qazim (Lucentio) hanging from a pillar, reaching out in longing. Bina was under no illusion as to the hold she had over men, sashaying between her two disguised teachers and demonstrating her superior prowess with language and music, clearly enjoying the chase. Her spoilt attitude (revealed further by her habit of sticking out tongues behind her father's back) left her in control of her relationships; but rather than contrast with another serious power imbalance, this production allowed her manipulation to be juxtaposed with Karin and Rustam's attempts to find an equal partnership.

The taming itself remained problematic. Karin was angry and embarrassed by Rustam turning up topless to the wedding, with Hamza Kamal's Sifarish (Grumio) riding a hobby horse; and the return to Rustam's country house sat oddly within the context of the production. Karin was slowly denied food, and the on-stage musicians played discordantly as she danced a slow, sad, weak dance. There was a lot to recover from, and the production risked its own playfulness at this point as it offered something more severe. However, what emerged was Karin's realisation of Rustam's genuine affection for her, and her understanding that everything was a joke, including the tailor. As they debated the nature of the sun and the moon, or the sex of Daud Randle's Waqaruddin (Vincentio), she began buying into the game, laughing at Rustam as much as at herself, and enjoyed trading jokes with him.

The playfulness underpinning the performance was explicitly pointed to throughout by Maria Khan's Ravi, linked to Sly in the programme notes but actually an entirely original character, who acted as Chorus and commentary throughout. For most of the production she danced around the edges of the action, leading characters on by pulling on an imaginary rope, exchanging high fives with Rustam or leading the suitors in moments of choreographed steps. There was no clear thematic purpose to the role, but she added colour and vibrancy, as well as playing with the spectators. While not exactly an audience surrogate, her knowing relationship added localised humour to specific scenes, such as her ridiculous fake disguise as Tajir (the Merchant) when she was pulled out of the crowd, and her appeals to the audience as the tailor.

Beyond the innovations were some wonderful straight performances among the suitors. Ghazi (Mukkaram Kaleem) was bent double with age yet had an almost childlike voice at times of extreme pressure, whether cackling over the indignities suffered by his rivals or screaming as hoisted up and twirled round by an exuberant Rustam. The standout performance, however, came from Osman Khalid Butt as Hasnat (Hortensio). This preening, energetic, frenetic man won over the audience early on with his witty deprecation of Ghazi, his cowardly withdrawal from Karin and, wearing a guitar round his head, his impassioned recounting of his beating at Karin's hands. As he pursued Bina with a rose towards the play's end, only to see her leaving with Qazim, both man and flower wilted, and he was pursued by a sympathetic chorus from the audience as he trudged offstage, finally beaten. His reappearance with the dragged-up and disdainful Begum (Hamza Kamal as the Widow) was a fittingly humorous conclusion to his arc.

While much of the detail of the jokes was lost in translation, this performance demonstrated the effectiveness of simple proxemics and voice work to carry an international language of comedy. The snappy back and forth between Ghazi and Mir (Ahmed Ali) as they traded offers for Bina was fast and competitive, Ravi running back and forth between the two before declaring Mir the victor, to rapturous applause.The fast-paced series of confusions between Vincentio, the Merchant and the disguised Tranio ended in chaos, with Vincentio finally latching onto the (real) Lucentio with an embrace equally weighted between relief and desperation. And Baptista's continual exasperation with his daughters was universally recognisable.

Yet the play had one final, more serious, trick to play. The bets of the final scene were played straight, with an emphasis on the bragging of the males and the exclusion of the women from the table. As Syed Abbas Hussain's Biru (Biondello) reported in turn the refusal of Bina and Begum to come to the table, Qazim and Hasnat banged their heads in shame. But Karin came freely and shared raised eyebrows with her husband, waiting to see what his play was. Bringing the women back out, she delivered her instructions for women as a double-act with Rustam. He raised her onto a small dais, and the two mimed the stages of a relationship, including demonstrating violence followed by both turning the other cheek. As she talked about being a servant to her husband, he in turn rubbed her feet or yielded way to her. Dancing a short, sweet routine that mapped out their past and future relationship, this Shrew discovered the unity in the speech which perhaps native-language performances have ignored or been unable to find: it was a speech advocating the importance of real, practical kindness and generosity in pursuing happiness. And on that note, the production ended with more glorious dancing and repeated encores from a jubilant audience.


May 25, 2012

The Two Gentlemen of Verona (Two Gents Productions) @ Lakeside Arts Centre

Follow-up to Two Gentlemen of Verona; or, Vakomana Vaviri ve Zimbabwe (Two Gents Productions) @ North Wall Oxford from The Bardathon

It's been two and a half years since I last saw Two Gents Productions perform their debut show, and a lot has changed in the meantime. I won't offer a full fresh review here as my last blog covers the important points, but it was a pleasure to see the company again and the show has remained as striking and innovative as ever, so it's well worth mentioning a few of the key changes.

Denton Chikura and Tonderai Munyevu are currently performing the show in two versions - the original, primarily English version, and an all-Shona version written for the Globe to Globe festival. This occasioned a great deal of joking over missed cues and forgotten lines in tonight's performance, all of which fed into the community spirit of the production. This was an exercise in storytelling, beginning with the unpacking of a trunk and closing after the company had repacked all of its props, leaving only two loose ends - the glove and shawl representing Julia and Silvia. This closing scene lost some of the power I felt the Oxford performance had - in that scene, the two 'women' were left lying on the floor while Proteus and Valentine bartered them, an image that drew attention to the objectification of the women in this scenario. This time, the items of clothing were left hanging from a line, leaving the women silent but separate from the scene. The point remained clear though; this was the men's climax, with the women sidelined, and the closing image of the two women embracing left the production on a sober, sad note.

The interaction between Lance and Crab was changed this time, with Crab remaining happy and panting for both of their scenes while a white-faced Lance delivered his lines mournfully. In a pointed move, though, at the end of these scenes Crab stood upright and removed his collar, but his tongue continued panting as he turned into Proteus. Proteus and Crab temporarily shared the body of Munyevu, the former taking on the unrestrained characteristics of the latter. This was particularly brought out as Proteus began his attack on Silvia, removing the glove that signified her from Chikura's hand and licking it deeply. The sickening nature of this gesture, performed on an inanimate object, reminded me how invested I had become in the 'characters' represented by these objects, given personality through the simplicity of their use throughout the production.

I'm not sure how clear the story would have been to an audience unfamiliar with the play, particularly in the case of characters such as Thurio and Sir Eglamour, the latter becoming a taxi driver who offered to rape Silvia himself, standing over her and touching her menacingly from behind, before she fled. The threat offered to the women throughout was only hinted at in the earlier scenes as Julia and Lucetta gossipped together, but became more apparent as the women were left on the edges of the performance, hung on washing lines and denied a voice. This was something made even more apparent in the original production in the witch doctor sequence that allowed Julia to spy on Proteus; here, a more conventional overhearing scene reduced the sense of voyeurism, but arguably left Julia even more vulnerable in the presence of her betrayer. Conversely, the relationship between the two men was established more amicably at the start, with the two going through a long 'bye bye' routine that jokingly portrayed Valentine's deep affection for his friend.

The amiable interaction with the audience, including the Duke sitting among the crowd to pass judgement on Valentine, created a forgiving atmosphere throughout that allowed the actors to banter, especially in an amusing sequence where Chikura misplaced his Julia costume and Munyevu, feigning sleep, teased him mercilessly. The atmosphere of mutual enjoyment and ramshackle storytelling served the tale perfectly, making this - yet again - one of the most enjoyable evenings I've had in the theatre for a while.


May 24, 2012

All's Well that Ends Well (Arpana) @ Shakespeare's Globe

It is not unusual to note that, when adapting classical English texts that particularly deal with class systems and social hierarchies, from Shakespeare to Austen, the Indian caste system lends itself particularly well to direct translation. In Sunil Shanbab's Globe to Globe production of All’s Well that Ends Well, the transgressive nature of Heli’s (Mansi Parkeh) pursuit of Bharatram (Chirag Vora) was made explicit early on as Satchit Puranik’s Parbat (the Parolles figure) cut off his gentle mocking of Heli, squared up to her and told her, coldly, that she should give up her hopes of pursuing him.

This was a moment of rare darkness in a production that treated All’s Well as a straight comedy, with the obstacles merely delays that proved Heli’s worth to Bharatram. With a heavily cut second half (Lavatch, the Brothers Dumaine and the entire kidnap plot were omitted), the focus was squarely on Heli and Bharatram, and their journey to eventual – hopeful – happiness.

The humour of the Gujarati text was apparent from the constant laughter of a substantially fluent audience; yet one didn’t need the detail of the jokes to appreciate the matriarchal confidence of Meenal Patel’s Kunti (the Countess), the feigned innocence of Puranik’s beared Parbat, or the affable interactivity of Archan Trivedi’s Laffabhai (Lafew). Laffabhai assumed the role of Chorus or Narrator, spending much of the play downstage dancing and singing to introduce the narrative to the audience. Fitting his role within the play, he introduced characters to characters and actors to audience, generating connection and enabling play. He also set the musical tone, accompanied by three onstage musicians. As one might expect from this culture, songs made up a substantial proportion of the performance. Often these were simply amusing, such as Bharatram and Parbat’s paeon to Bombay upon their arrival. Others, however, were deeply moving. Parekh’s frequent solos, used to expound on her love for Bharatram or retell her story to Nishi Doshi’s Alkini (Diana), were beautiful, often holding notes for an achingly long time as the character began to shed tears, and were always followed by extended applause.

The revelation, though, was Utkarsh Mazumdar’s hilarious and moving turn as Gokuldas Sawaram Bhatia, substituting for the King of France. The old man was introduced to us with a certain dignity, his quiet introductory song broken by the disturbingly realistic coughs of late-stage tuberculosis. Yet once seated and accompanied by his servant Pandurang (Ajay Jairam, in an original role drawing on Indian stage traditions of foolery), his affability and good humour won the crowd over. Whether demanding to be taken offstage for a pee, or grumbling openly at the ineffectiveness of English doctors, the open nature of the character and his willingness to overthrow convention were thoroughly entertaining. In a scene that generated an extraordinary energy among the audience, Heli cured him over fifteen days that took thirty seconds, she feeding him pills while Pandurang assisted him in walking in circles around his throne. When Pandurang finally let him go and the frail old man did an elegant bend at the knees, the crowd roared its approval.

Heli’s costume changes throughout drew some of the biggest reactions, particularly when she was sent offstage while Gokuldas enforced his marriage order on Bharatram. The decision to remove her from earshot while Bharatram rejected the marriage before the King was interesting, allowing her – when she returned to spontaneous applause in a fabulous wedding sari – to engage in the marriage entirely happily, even while he and Parbat shared troubled looks.

Parbat’s role was heavily cut, with the relationship between him and Laffabhai only hinted at. Kunti’s role was also much shorter than that of Shakespeare’s Countess, but Patel made the most of her appearances, particularly in the careful teasing of Heli that made her surprising embrace, as she revealed her approval of Heli’s love, all the more touching. The combination of humour and affection throughout worked particularly well, even in the minor role of Pandurang, who showed empathy for his suffering master even as he teased him.

Set in 1900, a colonial narrative underpinned the play without dominating. The war context was stripped away and, in its place, Gokuldas (a trader rather than a king) sent Bharatram and Parbat, wearing suit jackets over their traditional robes, to Rangoon on a trade mission. Negotiating with Alkini, Parbat informed her that the British had cut off her opium trade, forcing her into a position of trading with Gokuldas, and thus coercing her to agree to sleeping with Bharatram. Yet this undercurrent of constriction was downplayed in favour of Bharatram’s tentative attempts to woo Alkini, and the sisterly camaraderie between Alkini and Heli as they swapped places halfway through the bed-trick scene.

The stories of female bonding running throughout the narrative came out powerfully. Heli, revealed already staying at Alkini's after the shift to Rangoon, confessed all to her new friend, her song interspersed with dance that saw the two of them circle each other and swing each other by the arms. Similarly, her warm relationship with Kunti found physical expression in embraces all the more marked for the relative lack of physical contact elsewhere. Moments of reunification, intimacy and forgiveness relied on a sense of physical proximity; the bed-trick scene was played tenderly, Bharatram seating the disguised Heli gently on the bed and beginning to caress her, and their later open reunion involved him placing a ring once more on her fingers, the two finally sharing a moment of mutual, aware closeness.

The simply played reunification scene allowed for the possibility of investing in the pair’s love, with Bharatram seen slowly realising what Heli had been through for him and turning to see her in, apparently, an entirely fresh light. As the audience joined in applauding a wedding song and dance, for once it did seem that all really may have been well.


May 07, 2012

Henry V (Propeller) @ The Belgrade Theatre, Coventry

Writing about web page http://propeller.org.uk/current-productions/henry-v-and-the-winters-tale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


May 05, 2012

The Winter's Tale (Propeller) @ The Belgrade, Coventry

Follow-up to The Winter's Tale (Propeller) @ Sheffield Lyceum from The Bardathon

A second visit last night to Propeller's The Winter's Tale, now in Coventry, both affirmed and complicated the thoughts in my original review of the Sheffield performance. Once more, the play combined some truly superlative performances with a joyous depiction of Bohemia. Thanks to a far more culturally literate companion, I now know that the main dance number was actually a move-for-move recreation of one of Beyonce's recent hits, and went down particularly well with the Coventry audience.

The performance that particularly stood out for me this time was Ben Allen's Perdita. Less obviously foregrounded than his Mamillius, Perdita still managed to root the entire second half in a sincere and moving performance. Allen's Perdita fidgeted constantly, playing with the folds of her dress and wringing her hands. The mix of nerves and openness, bashfulness and pleasure in hosting, made this the most complex Perdita I've yet seen, and the wrenching apart of the couple by Polixenes left her broken yet resolute.

Unfortunately the first half of the play felt a little off. Lines were rushed through, and the use of direct address felt more forced than usual. Robert Hands's sobbing as Leontes heard of Hermione's death, which moved me in Sheffield, now drowned out Paulina's dialogue and sounded artificial, an emotional reaction too removed from his earlier detachment to ring true (albeit his reactions and wonder in the play's final act were still heartrending). Perhaps familiarity had muted some of the production's effects for me, but Sicilia only appeared to come to life upon the return from Bohemia.

It's still one of the best Winter's Tales I've had the fortune to see, and a great showcase for Propeller's talents. Looking forward to Henry V tonight, which will get a full review.


April 22, 2012

U–Venas no Adonisi (Venus and Adonis) (Isango Ensemble) @ Shakespeare's Globe

Writing about web page http://www.isangoensemble.org/#!future-productions

The tagline for the ‘Globe to Globe’ Festival reads “37 Plays, 37 Languages”; a tagline which excludes the Isango Ensemble’s U-Venas no Adonisi, the thirty-eighth ‘play’ (a dramatised version of Shakespeare’s poem) spoken in not one but six different languages: IsiZulu, IsiXhosa, SeSotho, Setswana, Afrikaans and South African English. This launch production, then, functioned as a kind of prologue to the Festival, breaking in the primarily English-speaking audience with a story that retained a substantial proportion of Shakespeare’s text and embraced a range of musical traditions, making this both recognisably South African and unmistakably global.

The Isango Ensemble is primarily an opera company, and this take on Venus and Adonis was a palimpsest in both its spoken and musical languages, representing the cultural diversity of Cape Town. The influence of the western operatic tradition was keenly felt in the vocal work of the company’s formidable ‘diva’, Pauline Malefane (also one of the production’s two musical directors), whose extraordinary range and power immediately established the power dynamic that would drive her interactions as Venus with Mhlekazi Whawha Mosiea’s Adonis.

Innovatively, though, Malefane was only the first in a series of seven Venuses, all dressed identically except for individualised hairstyles and facial decorations. After an opening choral piece, the company wound an enormous bedsheet around Malefane, which was passed from actor to actor during the wooing of Adonis that occupied the play’s first half. In this way, Venus was kept constantly fresh, wearing down the increasingly embattled Adonis. The change in physical identity was accompanied by continual variety in musical stylings, taking in street rap, showtime (with a comically smiling troupe of chorus girls), jazz (with the male cast members donning shades and clicking fingers), tribal chanting, folk laments and rounds.

The effect was one of a melting pot of traditions, aware of the future but celebrating an African heritage. Venus and Adonis became a continental myth, the lover against the hunter. The soft melodies of Venus were countered by the raucous screaming of huntsmen, at which the usually sullen Adonis came to life, brandishing a spear and grinning wickedly in anticipation of the hunt. At these moments, the visual traditions of African carnival came to the fore. Venus entered on a horse made up of the bodies of actors, with a horse’s head on a pole held above. This horse was distracted first by Venus herself, pulling hard on his reins and scattering actors’ bodies; and later by the mare, another puppet horse brandished by Venus’s counterparts. Simphiwe Mayeki, as the actor brandishing the horse’s head, comically snorted and neighed in disdain of his master’s complaints, before prancing offstage. Luvo Rasemeni’s Boar was a more hideous presence: covered in blood and screaming, he ran about the stage, snarling and stabbing at huntsmen, enacting a mythical version of the unkillable foe.

The tone of the first half was largely comic, a mood set by the hysterical appearance of a grinning Cupid in fatsuit and "Cupid" blazoned across his chest, who brattishly embraced his mother and accidentally pricked her with one of his arrows. Aside from the Boar’s intrusions, the comic mood continued throughout the first half as the succession of Venuses threw themselves at the petulant and helpless Adonis, wrapping their sheet around him in various modes of entrapment and coercion. Adonis was largely passive, unable to resist and reduced to silence. In one especially beautiful moment, as Venus feigned death, he and she became wrapped in the tendrils of the sheet, allowing him to gently lower her to the ground then raise her for a kiss, at which she awoke and winked deliciously at the audience. After promising her a kiss, the chorus of Venuses entrapped him in a sheet, forcing him into an almost intimidatingly oppressive intimacy with the goddess.

The second half, focusing on Venus waiting for and then lamenting Adonis, was much darker, owing largely to the introduction of Katlego Mmusi’s Death. Made up from head to foot as a grinning skeleton, with long blood red tongue slithering out, Death paced the stage, clashing together two sickles to ‘kill’ Adonis’s wounded dogs. The second half became a literal dance between Love and Death; played by Malefane for the entire second half, Venus was once more a powerful but frustrated presence, throwing the invulnerable skeleton around the stage but unable to do anything more as he skulked in the shadows. Finally, the male chorus gathered, all concealed under blankets. Venus ran around revealing the men until she arrived at Adonis; and on looking into his face, Death clashed his sickles one final time.

U-Venas no Adonisi was the perfect opening to the Festival, representative of its South African visitors while speaking to a broad and accessible multicultural audience. In this sense it offered a modern idea of Africa, globally aware but celebratory of its diverse heritages. Shakespeare’s poem became a tribal story, a myth of essential human practices, and a full standing ovation welcomed this newly timeless tale back to London.

This is a slightly extended version of a review originally written for the World Shakespeare Festival Project "Year of Shakespeare".


April 12, 2012

The Alchemist (Let Them Call it Mischief) @ The White Bear, London

Writing about web page http://www.ideastap.com/Groups/Group/feace54c-ca91-4fc4-97c7-9e7100bdcbdf#Overview

As previously noted, despite the fact I teach the specialist Jonson module at Nottingham, I've never yet seen any of his plays in performance. Happily, the ongoing mission of London's White Bear Theatre pub to promote the wider early modern canon couldn't avoid Jonson for too long, and last night was the turn of new company Let Them Call It Mischief to assay The Alchemist in a short, snappy production that gave the play room to breathe while adding a great deal of energy and invention to the presentation.

The single location of The Alchemist was realised as a huge furniture unit, with two narrow doors amid an array of drawers and cabinets, which opened at various points to reveal collections of potions, star charts, windows to the outside and, in the final act, the hat-wearing hands that represented Lovewit's gossiping neighbours. The varied use of this single piece of set allowed the location a certain fluidity, while maintaining a fixed sense of place. This was made more apparent with the use of a portable door, low enough to force everyone who passed through it to duck, which Face spent the play moving in and out of a storage space and repositioning in order to welcome the several visitors to his house. This device was particularly effective in establishing Face's control over the environment of the house, he literally creating the access routes in and out of the house.

Danny Wainwright not only directed, but also took on the role of Face at apparently short notice - an appropriate role for the show's director, in terms of the character's manouvering of the rest of the company. Wainwright slipped expertly between a number of disguises and personas, from the Cockney rogue that appeared to be his "real" self to the clipped RP of Jeremy the Butler and his gruff, military air (behind a ludicrously bushy fake moustache) as "Captain" Face. Face's default position was at the side of the stage, laughing knowingly at the follies of the successive suitors to the alchemist. In this sense, he provided the grounding for the play's tricks, the earthy ballast to the increasingly hysterical antics of Subtle and the finely drawn coterie of gulls.

This production was about folly, as established right from the start in the silent sight of the elderly and somewhat foppish Lovewit (Robert Rowe) leaving his house for what appeared to be a constitutional rather than a flight from plague. While the setting was nominally Victorian, the production didn't depend on period specificity, rather drawing on the period for a range of character types that usefully and broadly signposted the qualities (or lack thereof) of the various suitors to Subtle. Thus Dapper (Richard Taylor-Neil) was a moustachioed and affected Victorian gent; Surly (James McGregor) a suited and cackling villain; Drugger (Phil Featherstone) a simple Northern shopkeeper and Sir Epicure Mammon (Andrew Venning) a soldier complete with hobby horse.

The production began calmly enough, muting the initial opening outburst in order to draw the distinction between Wainwright's stolid and sure Face and Ed Cartwright's nervier Subtle. The two men showed clear antagonism to one another, but in a cool, sniping way rather than outright temper. Stephanie Hampton's Dol, meanwhile, wore a constant smile and flirtatious manner, attempting to charm the two men into accord - at least, until she finally lost her patience with Subtle and ended up pinning him to the floor and beating him. Dol, decked out in pink bloomers and beauty spots, fitted oddly within this production; with the part suffering from cuts, and a decision to play her consistently flirtatious rather than play up the stronger aspects of her role within the partnership, she seemed more subordinate to the other characters than one might expect.

Once the main play began, however, Face and Subtle relaxed into an easy dialogue that saw them manage the stage smoothly, trade whispered barbs and improvise with style. Cartwright was excellent when in full alchemical flow, reeling off his technical terms with only a few slips and managing the hidden compartments of the set to reveal fortunes, potions and assorted props. The two men also succeeded in creating clearly differentiated performances according to the gull in question. Mammon, for example, was treated to a histrionic performance by Subtle following the explosion in the lab, playing on his exaggerated ecstasy to heighten the effect of the disaster.

Venning's Mammon was the production's highlight. Cantering in and out on his hobby horse (which was also passed among the audience, thrust into the rafters when searching for the tricksters and rode sidesaddle with trepidation by Dol) and announced by a brass fanfare, Venning channelled Lord Flashheart in an energetic and luxurious performance that enslaved the character to his own passions, whether coming close to orgasm as Face described Dol's charms or bouncing around the stage as he imagined his new empire. He also raised the game of everyone around him, particularly after 'triggering' Dol's religious babble, when his prolonged and literally staggering kisses to silence her reduced company and audience to helpless laughter; or in inspiring Surly to increasingly melodramatic evil laughter as he plotted to foil the alchemist.

Everyone had their moment to shine. Drugger, in a bizarre moment, illustrated his previous experience as a Fool with a reenactment of being chased by a dragon, a scene which felt oddly tacked on, but his general slowness throughout became a running joke that worked far better. Alyssa Noble's Dame Pliant, all cleavage and bouncy hair, left the men open-mouthed; but Noble brought an interestingly sexual dimension to the character as she leaped between Face and Subtle and punched her brother when he attempted to restrain her.  The choice to play Tribulation and Ananias as Catholic nuns jarred with the dialogue in which Ananias, of course, complains about Popish elements; but allowed for some interesting moments, particularly as Holly Blair's Tribulation decided to flirt to win Subtle over, the nun pushing her chest up against the alchemist and breathing in his ear. And McGregor's excellent Subtle came into his own in the second half too, dressed in a spectacular Spanish gallant costume and reeling off fluent Spanish that added weight to his first sight of Dame Pliant, when the Spanish lothario appeared to entirely take over his character. His bolstered codpiece also attracted attention from the furious Ananias (Claire Cartwright) who decried its immorality in a voice of outrage.

The most significant complaint about the production is that the cutting of the final act was extremely badly handled. While plenty of time was given to Lovewit's return and his confident acceptance of the situation granted him by a subdued Face, several plot ends were left hanging. Bizarrely, despite going to the effort of retaining Subtle and even hiding him in the closet, the production never completed his story, omitting the Fairy Queen episode entirely. More importantly, the final encounter with Subtle and Dol was removed, meaning that the characters were denied their ending and instead just disappeared after having been the primary movers of the first four acts. This was a huge disappointment, leaving the play feeling unfinished.

Despite this, The Alchemist thrived in the hands of this young company, rendering the action clear and entirely amusing. It also confirmed my suspicion that sympathy inevitably lies with Face - despite Surly's clear-sightedness (though in this production, his folly was confirmed by ludicrous tears following his loss of Dame Pliant), Subtle's cleverness and Dol's festiness, it's the steady and practical Face that controls everything. Fully entertaining, and I'll look forward to seeing what the company offers next.


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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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