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April 07, 2012

A King and No King (Willing Suspension) @ Boston University Student Theatre

The annual Shakespeare Association of America conference is in Boston this year, a city I've never been to but which is thoroughly stunning, and a great backdrop to some very stimulating papers. Being in Boston also gave me the opportunity to see in person the Boston University students of Willing Suspension, a young theatre company devoted to the performance of non-Shakespearean drama. Several of their past productions are available on Youtube, which allowed me to make their Bartholomew Fair available to my students this year. Their current production is Beaumont and Fletcher's A King and No King, one of the finest of the King's Men's Jacobean tragicomedies and almost never performed, and so provided a welcome break from conferencing.

Stripped down and cut back, Emily Gruber and Matthew Stokes's production treated the tragicomedy as out-and-out comedy, bordering at times on camp - and to fine effect. The bare studio stage eschewed a sense of fixed place in favour of playing out continually to the audience, presenting a series of broadly drawn and self-consciously performative characters. While this approach muted any sense of genuine threat, it offered an amusing indictment of indulgent behaviour that held up characters for ridicule. This was, perhaps, clearest in the two central performances: Steve Marois as Arbaces and Vincent Lai as Bessus. A King and No King recycles several characters and situations from the King's Men's repertory, and in Marois and Loi's performances it was possible to see what would happen if Leontes and Parolles were written into the same play. Performed with constant appeal to the audience and a deliberate awareness of the sudden mood/tonal shifts that characterise both men, the play worked as parody of splenetic and humour-driven behaviours.

Arbaces was rivetting as a character. Entirely self-indulgent, vain (at one point checking his reflection in a knife) and reckless, his kingship was unstable from the start. Veering from over-friendly camaraderie to surprising violence in the blink of an eye, everyone else on stage was rendered silent and immobile in a bid to avoid antagonising him further. While this was amusing (particularly as his men attempted to shuffle sideways offstage without him noticing), the accusations of tyranny were also entirely apt. His patronising treatment of the captured Tigranes (Chris Fisher) was particularly offensive, he even patting his rival on the head at one point. Yet more than all this was the pleasure he took in his own authority, to the grief of those around him. In the play's more moving moments, Kelley Annesley's excellent Mardonia - initially a joker - became a voice of reason and passionate appeal against his excesses, finally bursting into frustrated complaints when dismissed as no longer necessary to Arbaces' plans.

Lai's Bessus, in the comic subplot, stressed the same aspects in his character, making a strong case for the thematic and stylistic unity of the play. Similarly reactionary in his moods and actions, Lai offered an entertainingly physical performance that saw him act out his retreats and attacks, with the occasional self-deprecating admission of his own cowardice to the audience. His interview with one messenger, in which he admitted that he had received over two hundred challenges, was extremely well played, building up to a cry of hysteria and a small shower of paper challenges as he realised that his supposed valour had finally made him a target for honour duels. The more serious implications of the character came out, however, as he replaced Mardonia in Arbaces' affections. On initially hearing of Arbaces' intentions to woo his own sister, Bessus paused, seeming as if he was going to make the same moral objections, before then offering a crude thrusting motion, slapping Arbaces on the back and agreeing to do the deed. The subsequent argument between the two brought out seemed to be the play's core central problem, that of the flexibility of morality in the pursuit of immediate satisfaction, and the amorality of Bessus contrasted neatly with Arbaces' soul-searching.

The choice to re-gender several of the characters, presumably occasioned by a surpus of female actors, was interesting - rather than simply have female actors play the roles as male, several of the soldiers became female. This was somewhat problematic in terms of the honour/duelling system, and moreover had the frustratingly simplistic effect of creating a sustained division between men as fools (Arbaces, Bessus, the Gentleman of the Sword) and women as voices of wisdom and reason (Mardonia, Bacuria). As a commentary on masculinist posturing, however, it offered an interesting visual distinction, and allowed for some simple comedy of the sexes in the subplot. While Mardonia's sex made little difference, playing Bacuria as a woman offered some interesting textual moments, such as her order for Bessus to "unbuckle", read by him as having sexual implication and further justifying his subsequent kicking. It allowed, too, for a slightly disquieting moment as Bessus and the two Gentlemen arrived to intimidate Bacuria, the two mocking servants suddenly switching their scorn to the woman in an attempt to subdue; an attempt comically subverted with a gleeful beating sequence as Bacuria single-handedly reduced the men to screaming messes on the floor, assisted with glee by Claudia Morera as their boy, who smiled wickedly at the audience as he wielded an enormous stick to take revenge on his unthinking masters.

More interesting in terms of the gender switches was Kelsey Simonson as Ligonia, the mother (here) of the runaway Spaconia (Fabiana Cabral). While, again, the choice of an elegantly dressed woman as the ambassador between the two kingdoms fitted oddly against the 19th century military aesthetic, it allowed for a shift in the tone of her interactions with her daughter. The quickness with which she branded her daughter "whore" and refused to listen seemed to come from a place of personal shame, and Spaconia's response evoked the teenage daughter reacting against a mother who she is attempting to distance herself from (I was reminded of The Sopranos). The sight of Tigranes attempting to pacify his new mother-in-law while supporting his wife was interesting also in this context, particularly given the quietness of Fisher's performance. Tigranes was a minor presence in this particular production, almost inaudible from my seat, which was a little disappointing, but at least served to effectively contrast his self-discipline with Arbaces' loud and reckless behaviour.

In the supporting roles, Allistair Johnson and Caitlin O'Halloran offered gravitas as Gobrius and Lady Gobrius, and Mary Parker was a severe and rock-solid presence as Arane. Arana remained the most difficult character to reconcile within the play, the murderous mother whose villainy turns out to have a root cause and who somehow remains on friendly terms with Gobrius; but Parker wisely chose to play her aloof and untouched, never giving away emotion. Jon Deschere and Matt Stokes were hysterical as the two Gentlemen of the Sword, the brothers who veered from mocking Bessus to squaring up to each other to hobbling off together after their beating by Bacuria. Cabral did good work as Spaconia, too, her gentleness and commitment bringing life to the quiet subplot of Tigranes and contrasting with Marta Armengol-Royo's more mannered and extreme Panthea.

The main plot - the incestuous love between Arbaces and Panthea - was less successful, perhaps because the highly comic tone of the rest of the play left little space for a serious treatment, and lines played with apparently serious intent were greeted with audience laughter. Armengol-Royo's princess was a very modern girl, in love with her own melodramatic responses (particularly in her amusing early interaction with Bessus, where she screamed for news much as Juliet pesters the Nurse) and constantly toying with her hands and handkerchiefs. With both Arbaces and Panthea ramping up the sentiment to the point of parody (hands on heads, wide eyes, sudden rushed kisses), it was difficult to take their plight seriously. What did come across clearly was an appeal to decorum, with Panthea shocked at the suggestion of sin as she clung breathlessly to her own purity.

The lack of serious stakes, combined with a clipped and rather sudden ending, left the final revelation scene more of a cursory wrapping up than a moment of magic, despite the attempts to create wonder by having Arbaces kneel and listen in awe. What came across more strongly - and fittingly, for this production - was the chance for a final whirl of extreme comic activity by Arbaces. Running up and down the dais to the high throne (criminally underused, but effective here) and practically skipping with joy, he took final delight in slowly revealing the cause of his own excitement, playfully reintroducing himself to the stunned Panthea and embracing all heartily. While this left the play feeling rather light, it perhaps hinted towards a sense that this is a play in which nothing really changes. Arbaces remained as inconstant and emotionally led as ever, and once more the supporting cast were reduced to still and silent watchers on, albeit this time with smiles rather than with fear. A fine and very funny revival of an excellent play.


March 24, 2012

World Shakespeare Festival

Work commitments and money restrictions are forcing me to be very conservative when it comes to this year's World Shakespeare Festival, but I'm pleased that I've finally now got a few tickets booked and looking forward to being there for at least some of the Festival! So far I'm booked for the Globe to Globe productions of Venus and Adonis, All's Well that Ends Well and The Merchant of Venice, and in Stratford A Tender Thing and A Midsummer Night's Dream (As You Like It). What's everyone else looking forward to?


March 21, 2012

The Alchemist at the White Bear Theatre Pub

Having been teaching Jonson this semester, but never actually having seen a production of one of his plays live, I'm excited to see that a new company, Let Them Call it Mischief, are opening a new production of The Alchemist next week at the White Bear Theatre Pub. I'll be there.

The Alchemist


March 15, 2012

Romeo and Juliet (Headlong Theatre) @ Nottingham Playhouse

Writing about web page http://www.headlongtheatre.co.uk/productions/production_details.php?Title=Romeo_and_Juliet_&production_id=29

Robert Icke, director of Headlong Theatre's new touring Romeo and Juliet, has clearly been taking notes from company director Rupert Goold. As with the last Headlong show I experienced, King Lear, everything up to and including the kitchen sink (in this case, an open air ice-cream stall) had been thrown at the stage, not all of which stuck. This was a production that judged its target teen audience perfectly and offered an inventive, often irreverent and fast-paced version of the play, but too often at the expense of nuance or coherence.

To my mind, the difference between 'concept' and 'gimmick' is in the coherence with which a device is used. The core innovation for this production was a Sliding Doors "what if?" approach. A digital clock hovered above the stage, displaying the exact day and time. Five times during the production, an alternative was shown - the initial Capulet/Montague brawl not occurring, Romeo and Juliet not meeting, Paris not staying to woo Juliet. Then, a bank of lights blinded the audience (unnecessarily painfully, I should add) and, when visibility was restored, the cast had resumed their positions and the action played through a second time according to the known play.

Romeo and Juliet

This device began interestingly, and the first three times the pivot was always Daniel Hooke's Peter, whose ineptitude with a cigarette lighter, clumsy drinks service or care for a set of bags enabled the action to progress as planned. However, the connection with Peter was dropped for the second half, destabilising the device's anchor. Similarly, it set up a level of expectation - when Peter was introduced into the Tybalt/Mercutio brawl, one expected the same device and felt robbed when it didn't happen. More significantly, several of the 'restarts' were simply uninteresting. While Paris's decision whether or not to continue wooing Juliet has an impact on Juliet's decision to follow Friar Laurence's plan, it's a dramatically inert scene to have to sit through twice. The gradual fading out of this action, along with the rather mundane anchoring of the action to "real" time, meant that the device never felt fully integrated, having only an aesthetic and immediately attention-grabbing implication. The slow drawl of a cover of the Boomtown Rats' "I Don't Like Mondays" as midnight approached on the Monday of Tybalt's death and Romeo's banishment was very funny, however.

More coherent, and interesting, was the production's emphasis on the youth of the characters. Daniel Boyd's Romeo gave what I can only assume was a deliberately adolescent performance as Romeo, with a voice consistently on the edge of breaking and movements entirely made up of arms and legs, with no centre of gravity or balance. Flopping around the stage, it was a performance that I found quite difficult to watch: the whining of a schoolboy, combined with his constant movement, grated and lacked anything to anchor it. The production seemed to want this of him, though, offering critical commentary on his fickleness in love and his mood swings between violence and romance. Catrin Stewart's Juliet was better, albeit still pitched at too fixed a level for the majority of the performance, turning off her headphones only in order to shout her sincerity loudly at the audience (literally, as she stood on the bed to go through the possible consequences of the Friar's drug). Together, the two demonstrated an immature and idealised notion of love - incapable, unconsidered and unplanned.

Despite the whooping of the young audience at the removal of shirts, this was a sexless central relationship, as the emergence of the lovers from their bed still with most of their underclothes intact reminded us. The aggressively chaste culture of the Twilight series has imprinted itself heavily on recent Romeos, to the play's detriment, and the finest moment of connection between the lovers was their quiet collapse onto each other as Romeo died, pulling Juliet across on top of him. However, their youth was thrown into relief by the gravity of the older players. Simon Coates was a deep voiced Anglican priest as Friar Laurence, first seen giving a lecture (with slides) to the audience. His controlled stance and carefully modulated voice gave him an authoritative presence. Brigid Zengeni's outstanding Nurse, meanwhile, was all innuendo and laughter, injecting real personality into her scenes as she fondled Juliet, drunkenly whispered warnings to her charge during the party and barked orders at Peter. In Zengeni's hands, Stewart became the ideal childlike ward, the older woman fondling the teenager's hair as if still a young girl. In one standout sequence, the scene of the Nurse reporting Tybalt's death to Juliet was juxtaposed with the Friar consoling Romeo, during which the two lovers were forced onto the bed that sat centrestage for much of the production while the two older actors walked in circles around it. This simple staging, conflating and juxtaposing two scenes, expertly demonstrated the dynamics that drove the youngsters towards destruction.

Better among the younger actors were Danny Kirrane as a superlative Benvolio and Tom Mothersdale as Mercutio. Kirrane's portly Benvolio was addicted to chips (even eating one with Tybalt's drool hanging off it) and a lovable loser in the Superbad vein. Less quick-witted than his friends, his laughter always came slightly too late, and his attempts at peacemaking saw him instantly pushed aside. When drunk at the party, his face moved beautifully between vacancy and giggling. Mercutio, meanwhile, was wired and energetic. The Queen Mab scene, played in darkness apart from handheld torches, saw him go to a dark place as his words ran away with him. Constantly on the brink of losing control, he pulled off the tricky job of remaining engaging while also being clearly the provocateur in the major struggles.

The first half was primarily about comedy. The party scene was played as a typical house party, with youngsters in fancy dress sitting drinking on external staircases, and Capulet getting merry on his own wine. The sexual banter between the young men was enthusiastic, though reliant on excessive groin grabbing and thrusting. The balcony scene, meanwhile, saw Romeo jumping up and down in eager delight, a puppy with a new toy. Yet a slightly darker edge was offered early on as Juliet was revealed to already have a knife in her bed with which she threatened the intruder on his first entrance.

The pivotal brawl between Mercutio and Tybalt very nearly ended without incident, as Romeo apologised to Tybalt and the angry Capulet drew breath and walked offstage. Mercutio, however, screamed after him and began playacting as a mocking cat. Then, as Tybalt again attempted to leave, Mercutio ran up behind him with syrups stolen from the aforementioned ice-cream cart and poured them on Tybalt's head. Tybalt turned slowly, snapped over his switchblade and, in a very quick confused scuffle, the incident ended. Mercutio, Benvolio and Romeo stood upright for a long time, delivering the lines as jokes, until Mercutio finally took off his shirt and revealed a huge bloodstain that drew all three up short. Mercutio only belatedly realised his own hurt, and his closing lines were spoken quietly as he was half-supported, half-dragged offstage.

The second half gave way to the more domestic story of the Capulets, which offered a few interesting decisions. While Keith Bartlett's Capulet was played quite broadly, positioning him as the bombastic tyrant, Caroline Faber's Lady Capulet was quiet and often moving. It was established early on that their marriage was deeply unhappy, and Lady Capulet was seen downing cocktails at the party and then kissing Tybalt passionately. After his murder, she became increasingly unhappy and expressed her sorrow by lashing out, as in her shouted demands that the wedding be postponed, which Capulet considered with a pause before ignoring entirely. The chasm between the two grew during the family conflict scene, in which Capulet threw Lady Capulet away from him forcefully, leaving her sobbing but also unwilling to defend Juliet. The deep problems of this family offered a sobering contrast to the high energy and sexual jokes of the first half, and Juliet now resorted to the knife with more serious intent, threatening to open her wrists before Friar Laurence.

At this point, Tunji Lucas's Paris became more important. In a horribly intimidating scene in Friar Laurence's cell, Paris adopted an angry air of assumption with Juliet, insisting that she declare love for him and forcing her face into his for a kiss. The actor towered over the diminutive Juliet, and the physical aggression of this moment was quite chilling, allowing for a parallel to be drawn with Juliet's parents. The desperation of the character was handled fittingly by Stewart, and culminated in a visually striking dream sequence after taking the drug, where she remained sitting upright in bed while the projected faces of her parents and the Nurse appeared in overblown proportions on the upstage wall, speaking across each other and dissolving into a frantic montage. She remained onstage, eyes open and wavering, while Benvolio appeared to report her death to Romeo.

The final image was of the two lovers lying together onstage while Capulet and Montague shook hands at a televised press conference on a balcony. With plenty stripped out (the initial discovery of Juliet's body; Paris's death; the arrests of Romeo's servant and the Friar; the recapitulation of everything that had taken place), this was a sudden ending and a visually neat one. The production failed to say anything particularly new about Romeo and Juliet, and rather took the easy way out with its superficial stylings, its crude humour and a resort to teen-pleasing bare chests and innuendo, rather than a mature engagement with the sex and violence at the heart of the play. There's no substitute for strong central performances and a command of the text, which too many productions of Romeo sorely lack. However, it clearly played well to its target audience and, in several of the supporting performances, offered a pacey and varied reading that kept the play, if not timeless, then at least temporarily contemporary.


March 14, 2012

The Taming of the Shrew (RSC) @ Nottingham Theatre Royal

Writing about web page http://www.rsc.org.uk/whats-on/the-taming-of-the-shrew/

The Taming of the Shrew carries a great deal of baggage with it. The gender politics that are inevitably foregrounded in production (is this inevitable? Are there other issues that are being obscured?) are read through the identity of the director, through our own filters of acceptable behaviour, and through our conflicted desires to enjoy a comedy and condone misogyny. In recent years, as in the last RSC production and that of Propeller, the tendency has been to ramp up the comedy of the play as far as possible, either to subvert it through unexpectedly dark moments or to turn the whole play into an openly performative satire of extreme behaviours on both sides. Lucy Bailey's touring production for the RSC fell squarely into this latter character, with an exhaustingly energetic romp that nonetheless provoked some difficult questions.

This Shrew functioned as extended foreplay, with emphasis on the "play". The entire set was an enormous bed, raking sharply up towards the enormous headboard, and made up with sheets. Pillows became playful weapons, wielded with varying levels of frustration or humour, and characters romped under the sheets. The intent was clear - sex was always the ultimate end point of this production, and everything that led up to it was negotiation.

The long Induction introduced Nick Holder's repulsive Sly, an enormous and bedraggled drunkard who farted, belched and gurned his way around the stage. In the opening, he was turfed out of an offstage bar by Janet Fullerlove's Marian Hacket, who became a semi-demonic figure, snarling like a dog and savaging the prostrate drunkard in a bizarre dream sequence. When Sly was awoken by the lords and persuaded that he was, himself, a lord, he refused to take on any decorum, simply stuffing the fine foods into his mouth and barking gleeful orders. The wonderful Hiran Abeysekera played Bartholomew, and was genuinely entertaining, revelling in the teasing aspects of his role as Sly's 'Wife', but then panicking quietly as the rest of the lords ran off to leave them alone. His attempts to flee the stage were rebuffed by attendants who threw him bodily back on, and it was left to Bartholomew's wits to ensure that Sly - already limbering up for what would perhaps be an overambitious exertion - kept his clothes on.

The two settled to watch a play, which was delivered for most of the first half as much to the onstage audience as to the Nottingham crowd. In between scenes, Sly and Bartholomew engaged in extended bedplay, getting under the sheets and playing chase games beneath them, usually ending in Sly losing his pants, being confronted by the demonic Hostess, or being denied his pillows, before resuming his seat. Sly's spectatorship translated into a preoccupation with watching and being watched throughout the play, and our complicity in what we watch. As Kate and Bianca fought with pillows, a leering Sly jumped up and joined in. As Petruchio's servants gathered, a pants-less Sly ran about the stage cackling, covering his genitals with a handy saucepan. This onstage audience slowly disappeared though, Sly becoming invisible by the play's second half, apart from a brief appearance when he ran across the stage drunkenly repeating "I'm a lord!" The gradual loss of the onstage audience perhaps indicated an intent to slip into a simpler relationship with the play world, at the cost of the critical awareness that the dual frame offered.

Spectatorship also informed the main play's opening, as Lisa Dillon's Kate was paraded in to slow folk music and a cackling audience. The production was roughly set in rural Italy of the 1940s, but the misogynist parade enacted here was perhaps more reminiscent of Tudor England - a woman led by a rope, neck and wrists encased in a shrew's fiddle. Assembled townspeople jeered at Kate, who humbly accepted her torment. As she was released, however, she knelt on the floor, and then punched her gaoler hard in the crotch. She then single-handedly proceeded to take on the entire town: throttling, punching, kicking and throwing the men, who both railed and laughed at her, turning her rage into the equivalent of a bear-baiting. Sly, predictably, whistled and clapped along. The fight ended, however, with her exhausted and seated, burned out by her activity.

Dillon's Kate aimed to shock in everything she did. Smoking and drinking hard throughout the play, mooning onlookers and utilising casual violence were only some of the more obvious tricks in her arsenal. More interesting was her aggressive sexuality, which she used to embarrass the men around her as she mimed masturbation on the floor or pulled a petrified Hortensio towards her. Kate was intent on doing everything that this patriarchal society disapproved of her doing; yet it was carried out with an air bordering on the desperate, her isolation becoming apparent in the moments of quiet when she ran out of energy. Her mocking mimicry of Elizabeth Cadwallader's hypocritical whining Bianca was spot-on (particularly as Bianca stuck up fingers at her when Baptista looked the other way), but implied also Kate's awareness of her own isolation and lack of acceptance.

The Taming of the Shrew

David Caves was another troubled soul. Petruchio was cast deliberately tall and young, the actor physically imposing (and clearly strong) but also without the restraint learned through experience. He and the tiny Grumio (Simon Gregor) adopted a "Basil and Manuel" relationship, the taller man slapping his diminutive servant over the head while the servant ran chaotically about the stage. The two were both hard drinkers, travellers with few social mores. Their appearance in the farcicial wedding sequence gave perhaps the best representation of their libertine lifestyle - arriving drunk, topless and tattooed, Grumio with an enormous phallus in his longjohns and Petruchio bellowing loudly, the two looked like the last men standing on a student rugby team's night out.

The dynamic between Petruchio and Kate was fascinating from the word go. Deeply sexually attracted to one another, the two engaged in a physical and verbal sparring contest cast explicitly as foreplay. Kate pulled out her usual tricks, and was shocked when Petruchio refused to back down. I would have liked to see a little more critique here, as there was something deeply troubling about watching a woman's means of establishing power stripped away from her through his physical presence, but by and large it worked effectively as a means of casting their struggle. As he refused to back down, she resorted to more extreme means. She realised she had made a mistake as soon as she slapped him, the mood turning dark for a moment as his voice dropped. Shortly after, however, she attempted to disgust him even further by lifting her skirt and peeing openly on the bedsheets. Again, he stood and accepted it. If reading generously, the production seemed to suggest the power of a connection where one partner accepts the other unconditionally; however, the commercial framing still served to cast this within a framework of male economic privilege.

When moved to Petruchio's country house, the taming became more traditional, and also perhaps more problematic. After being denied food, Kate paused, and then began scrabbing at Petruchio's pants, driven by a sexual hunger in place of her appetite. Kate's sexuality had been foregrounded throughout, but to have her driven so apparently compulsively towards sex with her torturer appeared to imply that, in fact, all she really needed was a good shag. The fact that Petruchio then denied her what she wanted was perhaps intended to prove to the audience that he wouldn't take advantage of her; but equally served once more to deny her agency or expression. This was the most problematic aspect of the taming, and concerned me for the implication that female sexuality was part of what needed to be brought under control during the taming.

Among the rest of the cast were several highlights. Sam Swainsbury was wonderfully dapper as Hortensio, putting down a napkin every time he sat on the floor and reacting with horror to dirt and disorder. In disguise as the French music tutor, he was all arms, legs and drawling sufferance. Huss Garbiya also had a great impact as Biondello, a particularly simple servant with an energetic approach to the role. Bianca and Gavin Fowler's Lucentio, meanwhile, served to parody the main plot with an appeal towards sentimental stereotyping (prancing together offstage, walking arm in arm etc.) which was undercut with glimpses of the two rutting unceremoniously behind shutters as Hortensio finally surrendered his claim.

Bailey's productions have a habit of showcasing the follies of male behaviour (despite the fact that these follies are themselves perpetuated primarily on stage rather than in any other medium), and this production was no exception. The casual slapstick violence and drunken sexuality of the male characters remained at one level for most of the production, with very little variation, making this an exhausting and sometimes monotonous watch - as funny as it was, variety of tone would have been preferable, particularly in the second act where there seemed to be very little by way of development. However, when the male parody worked, it was extremely amusing - John Marquez's affected Mediterranean Tranio and David Rintoul's old school military man Gremio played their financial contest with increasingly exaggerated references to their own genitalia, physically turning the money comparisons into a battle that could only be resolved with a ruler.

The proof of Shrew inevitably comes in Kate's final speech, and this was where the production had failed to adequately lay ground, the scenes of her taming remaining at too consistent a level of gruding compliance, until the kiss in the street where the two seemed finally to connect. The final speech was delivered with initial frustration but growing passion, played as a paeon to compromise and sociability. It ended with her appealing to Petruchio and kneeling before him. He stood, taken aback, and then knelt in turn before her, kissing her feet, in a pleasing gesture towards reciprocity. The two then began frantically tearing off their clothes and ran upstage to get under the sheets and finally consummate their marriage. The journey may have been problematic, but the conclusion rang true, casting the play as the necessary process of groundwork for an energetic and equal relationship. The return to the Sly frame added little to the play, as Sly was returned to the open and had money scattered over him for the Hostess to subsequently come across him. However, this was largely an energetic and amusing Shrew that made a strong stab at finding both comedy and a sense of equality in its resolution.


March 11, 2012

Twelfth Night (RSC) @ The Royal Shakespeare Theatre

Writing about web page http://www.rsc.org.uk/whats-on/twelfth-night/

The RSC's first salvo in the 2012 World Shakespeare Festival is a major new trilogy of plays on the theme of shipwrecks, all performed by one company of actors. The absence of Pericles is a mystery (actually, it's not a mystery at all - it's not a play that sells seats), but the grouping of The Comedy of Errors, The Tempest and Twelfth Night is a tantalising one. Sadly, despite the drama that such a tempestuous trilogy might promise, the opening Twelfth Night seemed distinctly becalmed.

A disclaimer: I saw this production on its second preview, and the company had clearly not had time to bed in. The main problems from my point of view, in a poor seat in the upper circle, were to do with the use of space (actors looked stranded in a cavernous multi-faceted set), pace (cues were missed, action felt leaden) and technical elements (a buggy getting caught in the wings). It felt rough around the edges, particularly on two occasions where exits did not seem to have been planned, and actors simply turned around and walked offstage. The lack of fluidity, from my perspective, slowed the production to a crawl, and the majority of the laughs came from Shakespeare's lines rather than from anything in the performance of them. I like this company, however. I think the production will get much faster and funnier, and hopefully it will thrive. I should also add that the group I was with largely loved it, and I may simply be spoiled by far funnier Twelfth Nights. The presence of Kirsty Bushell as Olivia was, to me, a painful reminder of her performance in the same role in the far superior version by Filter.

Jon Bausor's glorious set combined the wreckage of a beached ship (sofas, pianos, chairs all caked in mud) with the decking of a Mediterranean resort for English ex-pats. Downstage, the decking was taken up to reveal a water tank from which Viola and Sebastian emerged on their first appearances, and into which Sir Andrew jumped in order to escape censure (to amusing but perfunctory effect). Thematically, the more interesting use to which this pool was used was as a refuse bin, particularly in an evocative image as Olivia finally cast Orsino's proffered flowers into it. With such a striking physical environment, it was a shame more wasn't made of it, though some interesting blocking saw characters repeatedly forced back onto the diving board that overlooked it, particularly tense when Olivia was trapped on the precipice by a leering Malvolio and had to edge around him to return to firm land.

With a bar in one corner, a piano in another and a tilted bed sitting upstage, there was a lazy holiday feel to the action. Nicholas Day's Sir Toby wore Hawaiian shirt and sunglasses, spending his time in a state of constant inebriation while Cecilia Noble's Maria, dressed as a hotel maid, tidied up brochures. Bruce Mackinnon's Andrew, a roaring boy bearing a striking similarity to Hugh Laurie's Prince Regent in his stance and bark, was nervier and more wired, but similarly relaxed into the holiday mode. Fabian (Felix Hayes) was a builder working in the hotel who never seemed to do any work, and Feste (Kevin McMonagle) an older resident of the resort. There was a lack of any sense of urgency or time pressure about proceedings, which meandered hazily, everyone pursuing their own amusement.

This inertness applied similarly to the main plot. In the opening scene, Orsino, Valentine and Curio were discovered lounging in various states of exhaustion on rugs, sofas and across a piano, their lines coming from a place of lazy slumber. Olivia was also already onstage, lying on the upstage double bed, and Emily Taafe's Viola emerged from the water only to lie at extreme downstage during the opening scene (a device re-used for Sebastian's later appearance). The recurrent staging saw the present or future objects of people's affection appear, still, on the stage while their other halves spoke, but added nothing in an interpretive sense. This staticness and calm, playing on simple images, forestalled actual activity, as if the entire population of this resort was struggling against heat exhaustion.

This was, presumably, a directorial choice, and lent the production a nice ambience that often worked well, particularly in Bushell's outstanding Olivia, whose casual air and quiet concern for her servants were compelling and sympathetic. The atmosphere of gentle wonder suited the experience of Stephen Hagan's Sebastian perfectly, as he allowed himself to be led slowly offstage to Olivia's bed and again to marriage. Taafe's melancholy Viola was also fitted to the elegiac atmosphere, although this was damaging to the production itself - a quiet Viola, already a passive character, risks disappearing into the background entirely. The twins were primarily there to look at rather than to drive the story. While Taafe occasionally injected some energy into her performance, most amusingly her rapier-flailing attempts to drive away Sir Andrew, for the most part the character seemed peripheral to the action.

Attempts to speed up the production felt tacked on and horribly inappropriate. The disco music brought in for Sir Andrew's initial dance started suddenly, echoed tinnily in the huge room, and stopped just as abruptly in order for the next scene to start. Before Malvolio's final return at the end of the play, the music kicked in again and the cast began indulging in a bizarre energetic orgy, the couples writing on the hotel furniture, in an entirely incongruous sequence that apparently had nothing to do with the rest of the production. Much, much better was the drinking scene, which drew on the aforementioned Filter production (albeit less effectively). For the catch, the three singers began singing unaccompanied, added the sounds of small percussion instruments and a concierge bell, and built up to a climax with electronic underscore and screaming drunkards. The crescendo of this scene was organic and integrated into the play world, with a sophistication lacking elsewhere.

McMonagle's Feste was a wistful figure, older than many other Festes I've seen and taking his musical heritage from Irish folk. He carried with him a small Casio keyboard, and accompanied his sad songs with simple chords. His performances for Orsino and Toby/Andrew were beautiful, as was his rendition of "The rain it raineth", to the sound of which the two lead couples went to lie quietly on the upstage double bed in an image that showed a shared amity between the four. The production's great strength was in its reunion scene, which made much of the peacemaking between Orsino and Olivia, who embraced like brother and sister. Interestingly, Viola and Sebastian were cast with the brother absolutely dwarfing his sister, drawing attention to the differences between the two and the protective nature of the relationship between the two. The appeal of the play was toward a simple, family love.

There were gestures towards darkness, which were poorly realised. The first half closed on the image of Olivia weeping after Viola's rejection of her; and Jan Knightley's Antonio had a brusque air and a violent arrest. Both images were immediately forgotten though, and Antonio in particular received almost no attention throughout the play. Toby and Andrew were forgotten immediately after their final dispute, at which Andrew grabbed his bag and ran out in the other direction. The Sir Topaz scene, meanwhile, featured Malvolio receiving electric shocks in the darkness, but again with no sense of danger or critique. The laziness of the holiday feel became the production's key problem at these moments, with no real sense of purpose or agenda. Amusing and disquieting elements sat alongside one another without coherence, and nothing to tie together meaning.

Thank God, then, for Jonathan Slinger's Malvolio. The only actor who made the effort to really command the entire space, the theatre came to life every time he came on stage. Whether in cheap jokes such as his appearance on a resort mobility scooter to pursue Cesario, or in his wonderful attempts to move up and down staircases while wearing his circulation-cutting PVC stockings, he showed a physical and vocal dexterity that afforded the character a clear progression throughout the play and thus by default rendered him the play's focus. Slinger's smarmy hotel clerk took pleasure in his snide asides and his limited power over the other employees, and the elevation of his ambitions on reading Olivia's note (pronouncing MOAI as "moi?") was a pleasure to watch, particularly as the location of the bar behind which the clowns hid meant I couldn't see anything else of the overhearing scene. Slinger jumped on top of furniture, smiled toothily and ended the scene by running out, genuinely energised; and as he sashayed around the stage for Olivia's benefit in the second act, the theatre was helpless with laughter. His quiet delivery of "I'll be revenged", which took in the whole theatre, offered the production's most genuinely complex moment, and one only hopes that this performance remains the standard to which the rest of the production will rise over the next few months.


March 04, 2012

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

Writing about web page http://sattf.org.uk/currentfutureproductions/kinglear2012.html

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

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

King Lear

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


March 01, 2012

The Comedy of Errors (NT Live) @ The Broadway, Nottingham

Writing about web page http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/67933/productions/the-comedy-of-errors.html

The NT Live juggernaut rolls on. Now well-established as a theatrical/cinematic event, it was a pleasure to see the enormous Screen 1 of Nottingham's Broadway cinema packed out with a lively audience for the latest offering, a broadcast of Dominic Cooke's hugely successful The Comedy of Errors, which I missed in London. Even more of a pleasure was the realisation that NT Live has finally (apparently) realised that the extensive framing that I've complained about in previous offerings is unnecessary. A quick three minute interview preceded the show, with Cooke explaining the rationale behind this Errors in relation to previous productions - that instead of examining the experience of men arriving on a foreign shore, this production was set in an Ephesus recognisable as modern London, allowing the production to reflect on how "we" view new arrivals on "our" shores.

I've never seen an Errors that has fallen flat onstage, and this was no exception. Cooke's production was busy, lively, musical and energetic, reducing both its live and distance audiences to tears. Not everything was entirely successful in the cinema: the difficulty of watching a production staged in such an enormous theatre is that the projected voices were too shouty for cinema speakers, and much of the slapstick that clearly worked on stage played too broadly in close-up on a big screen. It's an unavoidable dilemma, but points to some of the drawbacks of the live broadcast.

The contemporary setting aimed to expose something of London's seedier underbelly. Egeon was dragged on at gunpoint for the play's opening with a bag over his head, while Solinus, a suited gangster, clicked his fingers at his lackeys. Later, the Syracusian twins found themselves in a red light district with prostitutes, gimps and transvestites, culminating in a red-lit sequence where the locals became grotesque and began mauling the two horrified visitors. The busy revolving stage of the National ensured an ever-changing series of locales - the pool bar in which Adriana confronted the Syracusian Antipholus, the modern apartment building where Adriana and Luciana lounged on a balcony sipping afternoon martinis, the cafe bar where the newly-arrived twins had their first "disagreement".

Particularly fascinating was the way in which these fully-realised locations forced a sense of spectatorship and disruption. Lenny Henry and Lucian Msamati as the Syracusian Antipholus and Dromio had thick West African accents that differentiated them from the identically dressed, but thoroughly London-based, Ephesian twins; and their newness was marked in behavioural as well as aural terms. S.Antipholus had a disconcertingly violent approach to his servant - poking him in the eye, beating him over the head with trays and kicking him hard in the backside, behaviour which was reacted to with shock in their initial fight, as cafe customers scarpered to get out of their way. In the pool room, on the other hand, other patrons stood around wolf-whistling and catcalling as Adriana prowled the room, castigaging Antipholus for his behaviour towards her. In this version of London, easy entertainment was found in foreigners being loud and ridiculous.

The foreignness of the Syracusian twins was not unproblematic, however. In particular, Henry’s thick accent, squeaks of indignation and quizzical moans turned him, at times, into a caricature of the “funny foreigner”. When he and Dromio identified the Ephesians as witches, they began clicking their fingers and crossing themselves in a panicked superstitious ritual, which provoked laughter from both the onstage and offstage audiences. While part of the production’s point was clearly to highlight problems of spectatorship and our enjoyment of the incongruous other, there was also something uncritical and disquieting about sitting in an all-white audience that was laughing hysterically at two caricatures of superstitious Africans stranded in the city. For a production that appeared at times to want to confront issues of racism and cultural conflict, there was to my mind too much reliance on easy cultural stereotyping and not enough reflection to reinforce a critique.

The encounter between the new arrivals and a multicultural city was interesting, however. Chris Jarman’s Ephesian Antipholus and Daniel Poyser’s Dromio had fully acclimatised and become successful, but still laughter was drawn as Antipholus was referred to as “pale”. A mix of Indian goldsmiths, Italian gangsters and Romanian musicians roamed the streets, the musicians playing wonderful folksy covers of songs touching on madness: Black Sabbath’s Paranoid, Gnarls Barkley’s Crazy, Tears for Fears’ Mad World. This chaotic, colourful world fleshed out the scene changes and wordless sequences, including a spectacular revolve scene as both sets of twins were chased through the streets by Pinch and his white-coated minions, while the scene shifted around them.

The highlights of the show, however, were the tremendous performances by Claudie Blakley as Adriana and Michelle Terry as Luciana. Drawing on the WAG stereotype, both women wore improbably high heels (Adriana drawing an audible gasp as she managed to stand upright on top of a pool table), clinging dresses and a permanently disaffected air. Their London drawl, alternately pleading and sarcastic, kept the characters on the knife edge of parody, particularly as Terry allowed every syllable to hang as she hesitantly dealt with Antipholus’s wooing. The sense of entitlement and bitchiness that united and divided the pair was realised in simple hair tosses and shrugs, and Adriana in particular relied throughout on a combination of aggressive sexuality and indignant rage. In her first encounter with Antipholus she choreographed an entire vignette for herself, striding around the pool room, manoeuvring across the tables, clinging to Antipholus’s leg and more. As the Ephesian twins knocked to get into their house, we saw the two emerge for a post-coital cigarette on the top balcony of her apartment.

Not all of the humour worked well. The choice to play the ‘porter’ scene through a doorbell and intercom rendered the scene static, and a running gag with Luce appearing on the balcony just as the others were out of view went on for too long. The reduction of the scene to an exchange of farting showed a production that had, at this point, run out of ideas. The Luce set-piece speeches for the Syracusian Dromio were also more muted than I’ve seen elsewhere, despite Msamati’s impeccable comic timing in his final mention of her. Interestingly, where the final confusions before the revelation of the twins’ identity is usually played as the climax of the noise and chaos, Jarman delivered his final defence to Solinus in a serious vein, preparing us for the more sober tone of the conclusion rather than allowing for the usual sudden turn.

The production’s interest in the serious nature of the play was most evident in Joseph Mydell’s Aegeon and Pamela Nomvete’s Aemilia. Mydell’s initial recounting of his history was not helped by an overly fussy and confusing (for a cinema audience who saw only fragments of it) full-scale depiction of the wreck and separation behind the characters; but Mydell’s sober, sad Aegeon provided a point of gravity for the play, and the final scene lingered on the tender embrace between reunited husband and wife, far beyond the point of dramatic pace, in order to entirely readjust the tone – a moment repeated shortly after with the two Antipholi. Similarly, the closing scene allowed the camera to linger on the Ephesian Dromio’s proffered hand, occasioning audience sympathy as the two took hands and left the stage together.

Errors, despite its reputation, is actually an excellent play, and Cook’s production did it full justice. The immigration angle genuinely offered a new insight into the play’s imagining of dislocation and cross-cultural encounter and, while some of the humour occasioned by this was unnecessarily reductive, the production did successfully depict the implicit prejudices and assumptions that inevitably dog a multicultural society. With a combination of bravura set-pieces, entertaining performances and fantastic music, the play proved itself once again one of the strongest Shakespearean vehicles for invention and amusement.


February 26, 2012

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

Writing about web page http://www.demiparadiseproductions.co.uk/index.html

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.


February 17, 2012

Measure for Measure (RSC) @ The Swan Theatre, Stratford

Onto a bare stage strode Raymond Coulthard’s Duke. Smiling to the audience, he raised his arms and, with commanding gestures, caused the house lights to be brought down, the music to stop and the on-stage lamps to illuminate. From its very beginning, Roxana Silbert’s new production of Measure for Measure established the Duke’s absolute control of his domain, stage and city. Yet even more striking was the smile he wore as he manipulated his surroundings. This was a Duke who delighted in control, and in the display of control.

The Vienna of this production had structures of sexual control built into its very fabric. The Duke and Angelo both wore strap-on leather corsets as part of their daily costume, and the Duke was attended by French maids and dominatrices. The set included living props: two women in S&M gear stood either side of the stage with spiked lampshades on their heads, departing at the click of a finger when their absence was required. Upstage, hundreds of straightened whips hung from the ceiling, providing a translucent curtain behind which could be concealed the play’s various eavesdroppers, as well as silence scenes of Vienna’s underworld sex scene. And in noisy sequences, Lucio, Pompey and their fellows engaged in a series of submission and domination games, playing out collective fantasies of control.

The Duke’s own choice of role-playing servants and fetish furniture spoke to his flaunting of control, as did his use of magic. His various letters, commissions and seals appeared skilfully from nowhere in his hands, often accompanied by a knowing nod to the audience and appeal for applause. His insistence on drawing attention to his own skill served on the one hand to ingratiate him with the audience, but on the other to set him apart, inculcating the relationship of awe and submission that inevitably underpins the conjurer/spectator dynamic. If his clear skill and awareness meant that an audience could be assured that the play’s conclusion would be his, it perhaps remained unclear that this conclusion would be a selfless one.

It was thus within the Duke’s carefully constructed world that Angelo and Isabella’s conflict was played out. Jamie Ballard’s nervous, intense Angelo oddly retained the trappings of the Duke’s court, including the fetishised lamps who were instructed to leave before Isabella entered; perhaps pointing already to the incipient hypocrisy in his position. Sweating in Isabella’s presence, and almost petulant in his assumption of right, this Angelo was conflicted and insecure rather than dominant. A particularly amusing moment came in the final scene as the Duke instructed Angelo to laugh at Mariana’s claims, at which an artificial fixed grin belied by panicked eyes was forced onto the deputy’s face. His attempts to consolidate his position in the final scene sprung from the same panic, but when finally exposed, there were tears, and something of humility as he stood quietly next to his new wife.

Jodie McNee’s Isabella, a young and often emotional novice, made a decent foil. With her earthy Scouse accent, Isabella’s appeal was offered as a pragmatic and often weary appeal to mercy that, too often, she seemed not to believe in herself. Paul Chahidi’s Lucio took a strong role in setting her on, standing directly behind her during the initial interview and speaking into her ear in support. Yet there were moments of individually inspired spontaneity in her performance that humanised the character: she fell to her knees as Angelo announced that Claudio’s execution would happen tomorrow, the enormity of the moment suddenly hitting her. Later, she reacted with something approaching glee to the idea of the bed trick, the speed and confidence of her acceptance sitting uncomfortably with her earlier moral stance.

These central performances were muted, however, and the drama and interest of these scenes depended rather on the characters supporting them, as in the asides of the Duke and Lucio. What was at stake came alive in moments of extreme feeling, especially Isabella’s scream of rage at hearing of Claudio’s ‘death’; but these were few and far between. This muting wasn’t limited to these characters: Lucio and Mark Quartley's Claudio laughed at Claudio’s initial arrest, and Claudio showed a sanguinity throughout his imprisonment tht was only belied by the look thrown at him by the heavily pregnant Juliet, brought on with him in 1.2 but taken away in a different direction to his apparent indifference. Perhaps this was a deliberate decision to depict a society so preoccupied with sex that emotional intimacy was denied, but if so then it made for a somewhat cool drama. The objectifying glances of the smitten Duke at the departing Isabella, and his sharing of a ‘Phwaoarh’ with the audience were symptomatic of an ongoing detachment from human feeling.

Where the production did succeed, however, was in the creation of a fluid and engaging underworld. From the first moment where Lucio lifted his shirt in order to remove a pair of nipple clips left over after a particularly steamy session, Silbert established a world that was engagingly frank in its embracement of the messy and illicit. The long banter between Pompey, Froth and Elbow may have resulted in a refreshing outburst of frustration from Angelo, and an amused condescension from Escalus, but remained entertaining in itself as Elbow hopped up and down in frustration and a leering Pompey directed Froth in a show of grief and repentance.

Within a fantastical environment (including a woman dressed as a fountain), the simple performances of the supporting characters went a long way towards grounding the play in a representation of reality. Bruce Alexander's Provost, in particular, offered brusquely honest assessments of the stage action that established a straightforward, unsophisticated morality that undercut the machinations of the major characters, and his surprise at being offered a better position drew a sympathetic laugh from the audience. Annette McLaughlin's Mistress Overdone offered an almost dignified defence of her profession, and the deeply-spoken Abhorson spoke calmly of his profession’s mystery. Perhaps the biggest surprise, though, was Lucio. While the character retained much of his arrogance and idiocy, particularly in the final scene, he also acted for the most part as a voice of reason and reflection, offering a practical and sensitive commentary on the plays’ problems. In Chahidi’s hands, the character retained his comic value in his occasional flamboyance and carelessness for the rules, but his relative consistence rendered his eventual punishment by the Duke rather petty.

Two standout comic performances served to lighten the tone throughout, but also to implicate the audience in the debauchery of Vienna. This was most explicit in the case of Joseph Kloska's Pompey. Emerging from a trapdoor in his new role as executioner, he proceeded to acknowledge his old clients from the brothel among the audience, adlibbing freely about balding pates, stripy jumpers and the shocking ability of a lady in the second row to sleep at night after her crimes. More bizarre, but quite wonderful, was the cameo of Daniel Stewart (Patrick Stewart's son) as Barnardine. Appearing first as a head, popping up through a flap in the stage, he screamed his drunken defiance at the audience. When he emerged fully, shirtless and with long lank hair and beard, he staggered about the stage, dodging Abhorson's axe blows and belching in an entirely careless manner, with something of Bertie Wooster's arrogance. In both his appearances, he drew spontaneous applause from an appreciative crowd.

The play culminated in a display of formal control, with the Duke’s seal dominating the stage and the Duke himself standing confidently centre-stage both in his own guise and as the Friar. As anticipated, the conclusion was clear directed through his own activity, the pieces falling into place perfectly. Yet the harshness of his initial threats against Mariana and Isabella, and the suddenness with which he announced his intent to marry Isabella, reminded us that he was primarily motivated by self-interest. In kneeling for his second proposal and holding out his hands, he finally exposed himself, and the few seconds for which Isabella remained silent felt long. For the first time ever in a production that I’ve seen, however, she eventually darted forward and took his hand, making a snap decision that rounded off the neatness of his schemes, while at the same time sacrificing her own independence of presence. The saucy jig that followed, with the actors rotating to engage in choreographed spanking, perhaps deliberately pointed out the underlying question of the final restitution of marital bonds – that these were not relationships built on equal measure, but on delicate balances of control and submission that resisted stability.


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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!

February 2020

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  • I think you may be over analysing. Wasn't it just meant to be a bit of a history lesson? I remember … by Sue on this entry
  • Very interesting and commendable, it'll be great to see some more of the plays given this attention.… by on this entry
  • The lack of venture in the filming is probably due to NBC Universal being onboard. They provided the… by Duncan on this entry
  • I have been watching the Hollow Crown and i have enjoyed it very much, the acting i think has been v… by Carole Heath on this entry
  • I know what you mean Steve, and it's a reading I appreciate theoretically, but I felt that Part 1 re… by on this entry

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