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February 01, 2009

A Midsummer Night's Dream (Propeller) @ Liverpool Playhouse

It makes a pleasing change to see a Dream during a hugely cold spell at the end of January, as opposed to in sweltering heat - which suggests to me a production that actually has something interesting to do with the play, rather than rolling it out to fill a quiet summer slot. This, the second half of Propeller's current touring double-bill, is a revival of a production from a couple of years back, and it's magical.

Magical in the literal sense of the word, for at the centre of the production stood a disappearing cabinet, through which Puck and Bottom both appeared and disappeared at various points. The idea of conjuring fitted a design which conflated several elements of late Victorian/early 20th century entertainment culture. Lysander, bizarrely, appeared in vampire cape and ruffs, Puck's ruby slippers and striped stockings referenced the Wicked Witch of the East while Theseus was clad in top hat and tails. In doing so, Propeller lovingly evoked the golden age of this production, the proscenium arch stage spectacular which the company subverted in their physical and hysterically irreverent style.

A white set, walled on three sides, couldn't help but evoke Brook, but Michael Pavelka's eye for detail led to some lovely touches, such as a row of suspended chairs that provided a gallery level for actors to crawl along, culminating at either end in the white, carved-wood high thrones from which Titania and Oberon tossed defiance at one another. Mostly, though, the plain set acted as a playground for the actors, with glockenspiels set into the wall on either side for live music and hidden areas behind the walls for sudden emergences.

Events were presided over by Jon Trenchard's sprightly Puck. Giggling and running around in tights and tutu, this was a refreshingly childish Puck, joyful and mischievous. One of the production's key scenes came as Puck emerged from the massed bodies of the other cast members, dressed in white to collectively speak the lines of the First Fairy. Puck toyed with the group, who linked together to create large shapes, moving and breathing as one, some blowing down harmonicas (used throughout the production to provide underscore, usually effective but occasionally annoying as they cut across dialogue), while Puck ran about, allowed himself to be carried on their backs and finally reduced them to giggling on the floor as he tickled them all. With the whole company working together to bring life and interest to even this short exchange, the tone was set for an ensemble production that, as with yesterday's Merchant, prioritised the overall effect over any individual performances.

One complaint to quickly mention, however, was the bizarreness of some of the doubling. While it was wonderful to see the excellent Richard Frame doing great things with both Hermia and Snug, this led to an unnecessary amount of running off stage before the end of scenes in order to do costume changes, and made for an unsymmetrical final scene with Hermia inexplicably disappearing from the court group before the Mechanicals' play. Also awkward was Chris Myles' doubling of Egeus and Quince. As Myles was in 'Quince' costume immediately before "Pyramus and Thisbe", this meant that it was Quince who came on in order to give Theseus the list of entertainments, nervous and smiling gormlessly. His nervousness struck him silent, causing Theseus to read out the list of entertainments (why would Quince be providing the list of all the other possibilities), and then Hippolyta to tell Thesesus that she had seen the play and it was 'nothing' - entirely out of character for the hitherto kindly Hippolyta, and logically nonsensical - why would the queen have already seen the play being provided for her wedding entertainment? Why not have simply used one of the spare actors to come on as Philostrate for that one scene? These doubling problems weren't crippling, but seemed to create a rather unnecessary amount of work in the redistribution of lines and business.

Small gripes, though, in such a rich production. Frame, in particular, was fantastic in both parts. As Snug/Lion he drew laughs from his mewing roars and his general lack of intelligence (plus a costume with "I'm not a lion" painted across the back). As Hermia, however, he was a revelation. Gently spoken and with some comically feminine giggles, this Hermia was girly and slightly spoiled, waving Lysander away from her 'bed' magesterially. However, once riled by Hermia's "puppet", she was a terror. Frame dropped the affected feminine voice as she asked "How low am I?!", reverting to an undisguisedly male growl of anger. All girlish pretensions were cast aside and suddenly the physically imposing hard man was all present, cricking 'her' neck and lunging after Helena. Lysander and Demetrius needed all their strength to restrain Hermia, making for some wonderful physical comedy as the four lovers disputed.

The other lovers provided similarly good value. Babou Ceesay's tall and rather inelegant Helena was ruthless in her pursuit of Demetrius, particularly in one moment where she broke down in pitiful tears, causing him to draw near, before she suddenly leapt up and wrapped herself around him. The two were later found crawling across the high row of suspended chairs, Demetrius increasingly panicked at his inability to escape. Demetrius and Lysander, meanwhile, were both funny under their enchantments, bringing out the trite poetry of love and slapping at each other in a distinctly feminine spat - a comic contrast to the raging rhino unleashed in Hermia. Yet there were shades of darkness, such as in Lysander's angry and spontaneous punching of Hermia as she clung to him, knocking her to the floor and raising a gasp.

While the fairies were rarely off stage, playing various exotic instruments to complement the action, they took less of an active role in events than in some other recent productions. Yet, when part of the action, they were always entertaining. Titania's retinue of four extremely camp retainers, for example, pawed over Bottom, taking orgasmic delight in the prospect of scratching his ears. Oberon and Titania themselves were regal, particularly Richard Dempsey's austere Titania whose presence was commanding, her air of authority only being shed to any extent when entwined with Bob Barrett's Bottom. The indignity of her situation was, therefore, all the more comic- a prolonged fart from Bottom as the two went to sleep was greeted with an ecstatic "Oh, how I love thee!"

Finally, the Mechanicals were well-performed, bringing out individual idiosyncracies in all of them. Trenchard, doubling as Starveling, was a stand-out during "Pyramus". An egoist, he resented his minor part holding up a lantern, and grew increasingly irritated as the performance dragged on and his toy dog was repeatedly stamped on. Finally, as Bottom ordered him to "take your flight", he snapped, screaming "Fine! I'm never working with you amateurs again!" and stormed offstage, causing Bottom and Quince to lose their places for quite some time as they wondered what was wrong with him. John Dougall, as a full-bearded Flute, minced entertainingly, and Barrett exaggerated Bottom's Pyramus even further than the text called for, including a priceless moment as he tried to remember his lines and re-ran through his entire part until he got to the line he needed. The hysterics of the on-stage audience were matched by those of the Liverpool crowd.

This Dream did its work effectively and entertainingly, providing an inventive and consistently funny evening that made the play feel fresh once more. While not a revolutionary production, the skill and intelligence of the company was obvious in their grasp of simple building blocks so often ignored by others - an eye and ear for a good joke, generous ensemble playing and a genuine enjoyment of language. A high benchmark is already set for the year.

January 31, 2009

The Merchant of Venice (Propeller) @ Liverpool Playhouse

After some rather poor Shakespeare at the end of 2008, I have to say that it's a relief and a pleasure to begin 2009 in the company of Propeller and their thoroughly interesting Merchant of Venice. It's been a couple of years since I was wowed by their Shrew in Stratford, and happily Edward Hall and his all-male company seemed to have lost little of their wit or invention.

Relocated to a prison called Venice, this production made the most of its setting, a three-tier barred Jailhouse Rock prison with courtyard space surrounded on three sides. The commercial exchanges of the play became backhanders to guards and other prisoners; the bargains in love became homoerotically charged negotiations over protection and allegiances; 'religion' was tattooed in crosses onto chests and necks and barely-contained violence threatened to erupt at every juncture.

The prison itself was fascinatingly out of time and place. Slave songs and a white-suited governor evoked the chain gangs of the deep American South; accents suggested Porridge; a drag queen gyrating behind bars recalled the silhouettes of Chicago. It was a prison in which Shylock could keep his daughter to clean his toilet and where bargains between prisoners were upheld by the ruling authorities. In short, it was a fascinating world, and the constant movement of background prisoners hinted that the action of the play was only a small part of the wider politics and games in a corrupt institution.

The biggest movers and shakers in this prison were Bob Barrett's Antonio and Richard Clothier's Shylock. The opening set them up in opposition from the off, as the Duke (Governor) brought the prisoners out of lock-up and demanded "Which is the Christian and which is the Jew?", causing the two men to stand forward and face off, before Antonio used his opening lines as an apology to the Governor: "I know not why I am sad". Antonio was a big man among the prisoners, followed by a line of retainers both intimidated by and loyal to him. Violent and moody, he held a switchblade to Shylock's throat during their negotiations and led mocking laughter at the Jew's 'kindness'. His weakness, unsurprisingly, was Jack Tarlton's Bassanio. Bassanio knew how to manipulate the older man, putting his arm around him and stroking his head as he asked for financial help. Antonio's desire for Bassanio was knowingly doomed; Bassanio's tastes were for Portia's feminine drag than for Antonio's burly masculinity, yet Bassanio was not above using Antonio's love for him to get what he wanted.

Shylock was perhaps even more ambiguous than Antonio. A long-term prisoner with guards in his pocket and a live-in daughter, he was spat on by the 'Christian' gang and, ultimately, had his daughter and stash stolen from his cell after Lancelot, a guard in his pay, took Bassanio's better offer and transferred his allegiance. Yet one could never have sympathy for this Shylock. Left alone with Sam Swainsbury's leery Salerio (a conflation of Salerio and Solanio) after the thefts, Shylock's sociopathic tendencies emerged. He punched Salerio to the floor, tied him to the bars of a cell and proceeded to gouge out his left eye, holding it in his hands with a panicked look as he began "Hath not a Jew eyes?" in a darkly humorous pun that was simultaneously painfully tragic. The ambiguity of Shylock was effective, painting him as neither sympathetic nor villainous, simply no better nor worse than anyone else in the prison. However, while effective, it also lessened the impact of this plotline; the outcome was of less interest than that of the Portia plot.

Portia, played extremely effectively by Kelsey Brookfield, was a fantasist, a queen entering by gyrating to the whooping screams of convicts. The whole 'Belmont' scenario, involving 'suitors' having to pay wads of cash to enter her game, was a cry for attention, a show put on for the convicts which the guards indulged. Yet Portia him/herself remained affecting, a girl looking for love and surprisingly reluctant to claim the eventual victor's kiss. The charade in which she engaged was most pointedly realised after Bassanio's victory, when Lancelot suddenly entered as guard and blew his whistle. Instantly the prisoners cleared the room of the caskets etc., and Bassanio, Portia, Nerissa and Gratiano picked up buckets and began floor-scrubbing duty, continuing their conversation as they worked. The world of this play was tiny, with all the characters sharing the same living space, leading to fascinating juxtapositions, such as an early enmity between Portia and Antonio, loathing each other over their shared interest in one man.

A further level of interest came from Portia's hinted-at connection with the prisoner governor, who hung up his white jacket to signify the stake of a 'father', and who recognised her in disguise during Antonio's trial. The hint appeared to be that the vast sums being paid in order to 'woo' Portia were the condition by which the governor would release his own claim on Portia which (if that was indeed the case) added a fascinating extra dimension to her imprisonment. As the trial ended, the governor paused before the 'doctor' for a long beat before leaving the stage laughing to himself, a slightly sinister acknowledgement of the all-seeing power he wielded over his inmates.

There were aspects of the play which worked less well in the prison setting. Morocco and Aragon, for example, had their scenes run together as if the company itself acknowledged that they needed to get these functional scenes out of the way, and the two performances (while not bad) relied on the usual racial stereotypes and thick accents for the comedy, rather than attempting to fit the roles to the setting. The caskets, too, were oddly accompanied by playing cards which Nerissa laid before them to no apparent effect - the 'Queen' signified Portia, but it required each of the suitors to open the casket, interpret the artefact within and pick up the playing card, which was all rather too confused and unnecessary - for the audience, as well as the actors, as it detracted from the more important symbols within the caskets themselves. Having a prison mug-shot of Portia in the lead casket, however, was priceless.

The performances were generally very strong, though Propeller are particularly good at recognising that the effect of the ensemble as a group is far more important than any individual performance. Richard Frame's bewildered hard-man Gratiano was exceptionally good, and his relationship with the similarly-proportioned, yet dragged-up, Chris Myles as Nerissa was a comic highlight. Gratiano was greeted by a terrifyingly enraged Nerissa on his return to 'Belmont' in the final scene, the spurned partner punching Gratiano, grabbing and twisting his crotch and generally showing him that, while Gratiano may be the trouser-wearing half of this partnership, Nerissa wasn't to be trifled with. Despite the violence, the male-male relationships were far more tender than the one heterosexual partnership, that of Lorenzo and Jessica. Jessica, the always excellent Jon Trenchard, took her conversion to Christianity badly; mocked by Lancelot as she attempted to sing with the prison choir, she quickly grew to resent Lorenzo and the culture she had been stolen into, and resisted Lorenzo's attempts at romance.

The centrepiece trial scene was well-realised, partly due to the presence of Babou Ceesay's Duke. While the Duke had often patrolled the upper reaches of the prison in earlier scenes, keeping notes on his charges, here he finally took centre-stage, and with him present the danger felt paradoxically greater. Where it had been hitherto every man for himself, and therefore everyone equally cautious, here the Christians had to restrain themselves and each other from intervening for fear of the Governor's presence, leaving Shylock free to pursue his bond, upheld by the authorities as prison honour. In this production, Portia's realisation of the loophole that would save Antonio came not a moment too soon, causing Shylock to drive his dagger into a board behind Antonio instead of into his heart. Thereafter, the scene became an official enacting of gang vengeance against Shylock, particularly bringing a smile to the face of the one-eyed Salerio.

The play closed on a reminder of the opening frame, with Antonio and Shylock facing off against each other in a possible reminder that prison life would continue, regardless of the play's events, with all the characters continuing to live together and pursue their fantasies of power and freedom. A fascinating Merchant, rich in meaning and often powerful in execution.

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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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