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May 27, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 25, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 24, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 07, 2012

Henry V (Propeller) @ The Belgrade Theatre, Coventry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 05, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 22, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 12, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 15, 2012

Romeo and Juliet (Headlong Theatre) @ Nottingham Playhouse

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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

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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.

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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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