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July 14, 2012

King John (RSC) @ The Swan Theatre

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The RSC's King John is playing in rep with Richard III and A Soldier in Every Son: The Rise of the Aztecs as part of the "Nations at War" strand of this season's work. It's a fascinating notional concept, but one thing that Maria Aberg's fresh reimagining of King John didn't emphasise was a sense of war. This was the most domestic take on the play I've yet seen, a rich and inventive study of a key central relationship around which infighting and politicking provided background colour. A nation may have been at war, but surprisingly, this John seemed to be more concerned with love.

Although the setting was not pinned down precisely, the legwarmers, neon shirts and music located John broadly in the '80s, painting a deliberately unflattering portrait of English popular entertainment. The kinds of behaviours that might, for lack of a better phrase, be popularly associated with a working-class Friday night out were here the default mode of the 'nobility': karaoke, miniskirts and cheap booze combined to suggest a society living for the weekend, oblivious to external pressures and ultimately torn apart when those pressures became unavoidable. It's a typical appropriation of this particular period, but more usually explicitly associated with the Falklands, Thatcherism and strikes, the messy and cruel realities which the era developed increasingly committed ways of avoiding. Here, though, specific political resonances were avoided, with the production instead concentrating on the mindset of avoidance, the surrender to crude pleasure that could only be momentary.

This was clearest in the scene which will undoubtedly maintain the production in some semblance of notoriety, and which reportedly caused walkouts on other nights. As Natalie Klamar's Blanche and Oliver Pearce's Dauphin prepared for marriage, she changed into fairy skirt and platform boots, he into a light lounge suit. The guests arrived in hideously 'fab' costumes, and the wedding played out as the crassest form of Albert Square party. The two kings kicked off the karaoke party, which quickly developed into a full-cast rendition of "I Say a Little Prayer" before segueing into the theme from Dirty Dancing, to which the married couple danced the full routine. The audience appeared to be divided between those in helpless hysterics and those sitting absolutely stoney-faced. It was a bravura performance and, from my point of view, thoroughly enjoyable; its indulgence was the point. As Susie Trayling's immaculate Constance finally crashed the party, sitting on the floor looking with derision at John Stahl's topless French King and the stag party rejects that followed Lewis, the point that the recourse to marriage and celebration failed to address the serious political issues at stake was finely made.

Perhaps surprisingly, this was a production that, through drastic reinvention, kept uncovering aspects of the text often concealed in more straightforward productions. The war scenes of the closing acts were conflated into a series of voices spoken from around the galleries: the encounter with Melun, Chatillon's interview with Lewis about the drowning of the French troops, and the Bastard hearing the news of John's poisoning were cut across each other, creating a mosaic of voices that deprioritised the political events in favour of retelling the story from John's point of view. With Alex Waldmann's John staggering on stage, the war played out as fragmented reports and motionless noises, the loss of men reduced to a meaningless number. As the voices built to a climax and John's staggering reached its peak, the lights suddenly went up and music sounded. Waldmann broke into a desperate and committed dance, throwing himself into pure movement which, as it went on, began gradually breaking down into coughs and choking. He staggered on for a while until he finally collapsed on the steps of the stage, slowly dying. John's hedonism and avoidance were brought into a single climactic moment of realisation, another extraordinary performative moment that summed up the character's journey in a kinetic and deeply moving sequence. The textual justification came in the young Prince's plaintive "'Tis strange that death should sing", here tying this peculiar detail to the character's overall arc.

Waldmann was a young and reckless king, openly sexual in his behaviour (including slapping his mother's backside) and entering a rhetorical relationship of love with the Bastard, who he held closely throughout. He was most at home joking in front of the Faulconbridges or leading the wedding celebrations that ended in debauchery. After delivering his speech to the besieged city via a standing microphone, he punched the air in celebration for the benefit of his cheering supporters. Dynamic and charismatic, he was not the John familiar from history but yet this king made sense. His weaknesses were those of youth, of thinking before speaking and of reacting with his mouth rather than his head. This pushed Siobhan Redmond's poised and elegant Elinor into the background, she enjoying the public flirtation with her son but politically operating more as a force of support than a leader. John was active in war and peace, and quick to crack a joke, even after the parodic ritual re-communication by Paola Dionisotti's Pandulph, played to Phantom of the Opera-esque organ music, when he jumped up and immediately began ignoring the cardinal.

Dionisotti was a powerful presence, with pursed lips and a slight smile that belied her confidence in her authority. Striding around the stage in sunglasses and trouser suit, Pandulph was a force not to be taken lightly, but who was finally sidelined in the Dauphin's rants. As the only really 'external' character, Pandulph was a reminder of what the other characters were overlooking in their selfish and inward-focused pursuits; she was the representation of consequence.

The boldest decision was the casting of Pippa Nixon as the Bastard, a role greatly expanded by conflation with Hubert. The role thus became even more of a co-lead, and the play was oriented around their relationship. In stocking and short dress, Nixon was a dynamic presence throughout. Lively and anarchic, always sitting or standing outside of the formal patterns, she riled everyone around her (particularly Mark Jax's astounded Austria). Her gender lent extraordinary resonance to the play's constant talk of love. Early on, she opened her hoodie and placed a hand on her upper chest, deliberately distracting John while her brother put forward his case. As the play progressed, the two entered a relationship that was deeply tactile but never reduced to mere sex; John was utterly dependent on the Bastard, holding her and staring deep into her eyes as he placed his love and trust in her, and she recapitulated her devotion to him. John was the Bastard's connection to the playworld, for she spent most of the first half talking to the audience. The other actors would freeze for her soliloquies, and she fully inhabited the Lord of Misrule role by taking over and narrating or undercutting the action. Yet John captured all her attention, and provided the focus that drew her further into events.

The commission to murder Arthur was given in the heat of battle, as the bloody-armed Bastard met John in a spirit of high energy, and the snappy back and forth between the two spoke of two minds already in tune. Yet confronted with the child, the Bastard was finally forced to engage with someone other than John. Attempting to handcuff the child, but ending sprawled across the floor with him bound by his active pleading, Nixon captured in a physical and enervated way the struggle of conscience. The two practically wrestled, and Nixon's energy became rooted in a fixed point of the stage, turning inward into her own conflict. As she returned to John, the terrified energy of both - she at her failure to carry out his order, he at his penance for what he believed had taken place - was channelled into a deeply disturbing sequence as John, enraged and terrified, grabbed hold of the woman he 'loved' and proceeded to enact an abortive rape on her, wrenching at her breasts and pinning her to the floor as she sobbed in simultaneous pain and regret. Although he subsequently apologised, it was a disquieting insight into the darkest aspect of this king's compulsive behaviour - he needed to feel and consume, his drives geared towards destruction that would easily consume those around him also. His behaviours were simply unsustainable.

At its motif, the production continually revisited the notion of release. The second half began with the Bastard entering and belting out (not fantastically, but adequately) a solo number as John sat behind her, at the climax of which confetti cannons went off in the rafters and the background scenery - an enormous balloon cage - collapsed, sending beach-ball sized balloons around the auditorium which remained for the rest of the production, being kicked out of the way as the scowling English lords made their way around the stage. A steep staircase dominated the upstage area, down which Arthur gingerly made his way before jumping; a mirror actor stood at the top of the steps and threw themselves off and away from the audience as Arthur collapsed amid the balloons. And Pandulph's re-communion of John threw all the tricks of pageantry and austere music at the king in an effort to enforce submission.

The other performances were largely fine, with a young cast pulling out some great moments. Iain Batchelor was a nervy, preppy Robert Faulconbridge; Joshua Jenkins stood out as a youthful and keen Essex, taking on a Poins-like relationship with John; and Edmund Kingsley made a fine impression as Chatillon, wearing light pink lounge suit and addressing his superiors on both sides with a nervous formality. He drew some of the evening's biggest laughs when he returned to the French court with a plastic bag full of London souvenirs. Jax's Austria was a threatening presence, made all the more ridiculous when wearing a horned stag party hat, and the Dauphin was great fun in his superficial flirations and complaints. The group moments were less impressive, with the Chorus representing the people of Angiers far too choreographed and stylised to be compelling. In the play's quieter, more traditional moments, Trayling delivered a fine lament as Constance; however, to my mind, the production didn't show enough interest in these aspects. The problem with such a noisy production is that moments of quietness felt underprepared by comparison. Much of the play was actually quite slow, a slowness mitigated by the visual interest for most of the production but which came out to the production's detriment when the bag of tricks was temporarily withdrawn.

While the plot was sidelined (the nobles were almost indistinguishable from one another and the war story given very little attention), this was a clear and accessible King John. Ultimately, though, it was all about the central relationship. The climax to the penultimate scene saw the Bastard declaring her fortitude to hear John's sufferings with the words "I am no woman" repeated three times, setting up an emotional conclusion that saw the Bastard finally confront her human connection to John. The final scene was played with just John, Henry and the Bastard on stage, and John died in the Bastard's arms to her screams. It was a deeply moving conclusion that completed the Bastard's arc, showing her entirely exhausted by her devotion to John, she drawn in by his charisma and connection yet finally abandoned. This was not an easy King John, and no doubt one that will divide its audience, but the freshness and tight emotional focus of the production dug something genuinely new, yet entirely in the spirit of the play, from a too-neglected text.

June 29, 2012

Free Teaching Shakespeare webinar

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For readers interested in Shakespearean pedagogy, there's now a very exciting new resource that I'm touting on behalf of my former colleagues at the University of Warwick. "Teaching Shakespeare" is a collaboration between Warwick and the Royal Shakespeare Company, creating a package of interactive resources, guides and videos for use by teachers of Shakespeare. They're hosting a free taster webinar on Sunday 8th July, which you can sign up for now. Enjoy!

March 11, 2012

Twelfth Night (RSC) @ The Royal Shakespeare Theatre

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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.

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.

May 27, 2011

The Merchant of Venice (RSC) @ The Royal Shakespeare Theatre

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Rupert Goold's new production of The Merchant of Venice for the RSC has already caused something of a stir in the press, dividing critics and audiences alike. Despite the presence of a star name in Patrick Stewart in the cast, this was not the traditional Merchant that many may have hoped for, but rather a full-scale reinvention of the play that offered an ugly, frank, hysterical and provocative presentation of alternative issues thrown up by this problematic play.

The production was set in Las Vegas, with the audience arriving to find a casino evening already in full swing, presided over by an icon of a busty table girl splayed out as if a crucifix. Money was this production's church, and an ensemble of American tourists were already hard at the craps table. A live big band kept up a rollicking underscore, building in volume and speed until Jamie Beamish rose from the masses, a Launcelot Gobbo as Elvis impersonator, who launched into "Viva Las Vegas" accompanied by a bevy of scantily clad dancers. The tone was set for the evening - noisy, brash, colourful and irreverent. Beamish's Launcelot burst into song throughout the production with covers of old standards, keeping the crowd entertained and the atmosphere light; yet as a more sombre mood began to permeate the performance, so did the songs begin tending towards ballads and a darker sensibility.

The Merchant of Venice

The company made a huge effort to make the concept coherent. All the cast put on American accents, some with more success than others - Howard Charles and Aidan Kelly were wonderful Brooklynites as Gratiano and Solanio, while Portia and Nerissa were note perfect as Southern belles. Others were horrendous, and Scott Handy in particular, as Antonio, kept slipping between his native and adopted dialects. The frustration is that English accents wouldn't have been a stretch for an audience willing to buy into the conceit. Shakespeare sounds wonderful in natural American accents, but to watch English actors concentrating so hard and internalising their performance in order to get a voice right was deeply irritating, and meant that less effort went into the performances themselves. It wasn't a fatal flaw, but one wished that the actors had just used their natural accents.

Locations were intelligently re-set. Shylock, Solanio and Salerio met in an cafe where hookers were taking their morning coffee; the masquers rode to meet Jessica in a mimed car with blaring rap music; deals were struck in the lavish offices of casino managers; one beautiful sequence saw the Sallies discussing Antonio's fall in an elevator with other characters coming and going; Antonio was arrested by Shylock at the Cirque du Soleil, where the merchant was hiding in the front row of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre while a trapeze artist twirled above; and Launcelot battled his conscience while sitting on a slot machine stool, while two PVC-clad women in white and red acted out Conscience and the Fiend. There was an issue of too much time going into ingenious settings and not enough into the dynamics of the scenes themselves - when the stage finally quietened to allow dialogue scenes of two or three characters talking, the play felt comparatively flat and under-rehearsed. As the play went on, though, the nuances of the performances began to manifest themselves.

The most fascinating aspect of the conceit was the recasting of Belmont as a TV reality show called "Destiny", which aimed to marry off Portia live on air. Susannah Fielding was the blonde star, Emily Plumtree the programme's host, and the two were surrounded by video screens, cameras and backstage flunkies. The two women sat on a sofa and spoke in deliberately affected tones, pausing for canned laughter and groans as they reported the characters of the suitors. Each "episode" ended with the two speaking a catchphrase direct to camera. The deliberate superficiality of the format gave a satiric slant to the sequences, but darker elements could gradually be viewed beneath. As Chris Jarman's Morocco, a boxer, jogged on stage, hecklers threw bananas at him in an ugly moment of racism; but far more troubling were Portia and Nerissa's own fixed grins as they stared pointedly ahead towards the camera. As soon as Morocco left and the studio lights clicked off, Portia's face collapsed and she shuddered as she wished that none of his complexion might ever win. The latent racism in the character extended to the extremely patronising treatment of Caroline Martin's Jessica, to whom Portia spoke as if a little child. Nerissa and Portia aimed to give Jessica a makeover, but this particular session ended with Jessica storming out eating the cucumber which had previously been resting on her eyes. Jason Morell's Arragon, meanwhile, was a Mexican cleaner who was beckoned by a stage hand onto the set, dressed up and forced to perform and wave gormlessly at the cameras.

Fielding's performance was the standout of the evening, creating a complex and deeply scarred persona whose gradual decline was fascinating to watch. In early scenes there were clues, as she scrabbled at her head and shook convulsively after the cameras had moved away. This was a Portia broken by the enforced performance that defined her, which culminated in her song of "Tell me where is fancy bred" to Bassanio as he chose between the caskets. The caskets themselves - made up like gameshow boxes - had previously yielded a diamond-encrusted skull and a shrivelled jester's head; but the lead casket delivered a remote control to Bassanio, with which he turned on a screen that revealed Portia speaking the victory verse. As the screen Portia did this, the stage Portia removed her blonde wig (to gasps from the audience) and stepped off her enormous high heels, baring herself before her new husband. At the same time, all the paraphenalia of the reality show disappeared, including her entourage. A confused Bassanio greeted her with a kiss but continued to look around in confusion; while she looked pleadingly at him, asking him to see the true her beneath the performance. Upon the re-entrance of Gratiano and Nerissa, she hastily threw on her wig and shoes again, appearing slightly more dishevelled but unable to confront the world without her disguise.

The vulnerability displayed by Fielding in this moment informed the remainder of her character. Her performance in the court scene was unpersuasive - we had seen too little of the character's intelligence and spontaneity to believe "Bellario's" quick-thinking reactions during the trial, even if Fielding and Plumtree both effectively conveyed the panic of the two women outside of their carefully-controlled setting. More powerful, however, was the look on her face as Richard Riddell's Bassanio embraced Antonio, and then after his release held him tightly in a downstage corner. One could see her heart breaking as she sized up the connection between the two men, a connection which entirely excluded her. Upon the return of the two men to Belmont, Portia's face again fell, and she continued to watch the two men casually touch one another and speak of their love. She sat between them on a couch, and as Antonio offered to pawn his body for his friend, the two men took hands behind her. Trembling, Portia got up, took up her wig again and slipped on one of her heels. Summoning up a fractured remembrance of her gameshow character, she excitedly distributed prize envelopes to Lorenzo, Jessica and Antonio, her voice rising in unhinged excitement. Then, following Gratiano's final lines, she slid off her wig in despair and, as Launcelot began trilling "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" she began dancing slowly with her fake hair, stepping on and off her one remaining shoe. It might not have been subtle, but it was a heartwrenching depiction of rejection and failed trust. Portia's risk in exposing the girl beneath to a man she loved had been too great, and there was nothing left for her to cling to but the remnants of the disguise that had always defined her.

While Portia provided the most powerful emotional through line, the other performances were largely also strong. Patrick Stewart was fine as Shylock, bringing a quiet dignity and occasional oddities to the role. The issue of anti-semitism was largely subordinated to wider concerns of racism and superficiality, but Stewart (first revealed playing golf in his office) became more identifiably Jewish as the play progressed, appearing at home in a yarmulka and whispering a Yiddish goodbye to Jessica; then later appearing in robes for the trial scene. An anger manifested itself at times, including in a passionate dance before the interval hit and in his shrugging off of his robes and callous laugh after his "conversion". Considering that Stewart is an obvious star name, however, Shylock felt rather incidental to this production, operating as a driving force for the plot rather than as the central attraction.

The trial scene was imagined as a mob execution, carried out in a cold room beneath one of the casinos, where police officers in the pay of a local gangster (Des McAleer's Duke) put Antonio on a box and tied his wrists far above his head. This was the scene that struggled most in the modern setting, but still had some wonderful moments, not least Shylock pulling forward the silent Arragon, now back in his cleaner's garb, as an example of the abuse of other peoples by the "Venetians". The build-up towards Shylock cutting into Antonio's flesh was painful, with Portia's intervention being left until the last possible second.

This production will be talked about for years, and represented a triumph for director-led concept theatre at the RSC. While it will no doubt offend many, and while Goold still needs to give the same attention to actors that he accords to design and concept, this was a truly revolutionary Merchant that found new life in the play beyond Shylock's tragedy and made the powerful case that, ultimately, it's impossible to find any redemption in a society so concerned with surface. All that glisters really isn't gold.

This review originally appeared at Shakespeare Revue.

May 19, 2011

Cardenio (RSC) @ The Swan – Revisited

Follow-up to Cardenio (RSC) @ The Swan Theatre, Stratford–upon–Avon from The Bardathon

I’m just back from my second viewing of the RSC’s Cardenio, and it’s still great. This time, familiar with the new material and the reshaping of Double Falsehood, I had more leisure to enjoy the sparky relationship established between Oliver Rix's Cardenio and Lucy Briggs-Owen's Luscinda in the opening scenes; the formality of Simeon Moore's Pedro as he persuades Cardenio to inform on Fernando; the good-natured decision of the shepherds to escort Cardenio into town to be cured; and the role of Matti Houghton's Duenna in chaperoning Luscinda during all her meetings with Cardenio. The music, too, is utterly wonderful, and I didn’t do it justice in my last review. The Spanish-inflected band, with an amazing singer and fantastic flamenco guitar work, brought the house down during the final dance, and made all the difference in terms of atmosphere.

I also think Greg Doran has done stirling work in adding a great amount of new material that fits almost seamlessly with Theobald's text. Yes, there are a few inconsistencies (I particularly dislike Cardenio's resigned soliloquy after the wedding, which doesn't fit well with the character's subsequent madness), but by and large I would defy anyone without a prior knowledge of Double Falsehood to distinguish the new material. I'm writing at the moment about the difficulty of "splicing" together material in order to create an effective theatrical adaptation, and Doran's Cardenio is a masterclass in how to succeed.

I’m still deeply troubled, though, by the play’s treatment of Fernando’s seduction of Dorotea. I discussed this in my last review; but, in light of today’s outcry against Ken Clarke’s discussion of rape, and his implicit distinction between “serious” rape and (presumably) less serious forms of rape, I remain frustrated by the production’s fudging of this key issue. It's this that I'd like to focus on here.

In Double Falsehood, Henriquez (Fernando) woos Violante (Dorotea) at her window. She rebuffs him and leaves, and he piquantly asks why he is treated with contempt. In the next scene, he appears again in a distracted state. He reveals in soliloquy that he has forced himself on Violante. In a key speech, he promises to be hard on himself and asks if it was rape; and while he convinces himself that he didn’t, it is clear to the audience that rape is what it was. The text reads “True, she did not consent, as true she did resist, but in silence all.” We don’t need to know the exact details of how, when and where; the point is that he has raped her and that she did not consent, even in his own self-justification. Violante’s pursuit of Henriquez for the remainder of the play is an attempt to make the best of the situation by making good on his promise to marry her (a promise which he gave during the rape, with the implication that it offered him some comfort). While this is obviously an early modern solution to a social problem, it poses interesting possibilities for a modern production – as indeed it did for MokitaGrit – in exploring the problematic relationship between love and abuse.

In Doran’s production, the heaviest section of new writing comes in between these two scenes. First, we see Alex Hassell's Fernando at court with Cardenio, showing that he did not instantly act on his impulse to pursue her into her room. The heat is taken off his lust. Then, Doran provides a lengthy seduction scene. Early in this scene, Fernando attempts to force himself on Pippa Nixon's Dorotea. She resists, and he desists.

However, she then throws him a lifeline, by telling him that she would be happy to yield her virginity to the man who promised to marry her. He leaps on this, offering her marriage and promising to be hers forever. She consents – slowly, but decisively – to this, and the scene closes on the two of them sharing a mutual kiss, before fireworks explode and a fiesta with phallic manikins takes over the stage. The only more threatening note is as Fernando points out that, if they don’t do the act, he will shame her by making clear his departure from her flat, pressuring her into consenting.

The pressure applied on Dorotea in this scene is enough to still demonstrate Fernando’s basic caddishness, and I would argue it’s still enough to qualify as rape. However, the emphasis on her consent is too strong. In the self-justification scene that follows, there is an important textual change, as Fernando says “True, she DID consent; as true, she did resist.” While this could still be explained away as his own self-delusion, this is the soliloquy which dictates how an audience is expected to respond to the act, and it corroborates what we have already seen – that Dorotea willingly had sex with Fernando, albeit under conditions that Fernando is showing us he has no intention of keeping. What is crucial here is that Fernando is convincing in his assertion that it was not rape, strongly emphasised by the actor in a voice designed to break apart from the character’s comic weakness and determine a truth. For this production, the act is not rape. Fernando’s crime is reduced to that of faithlessness, even treachery, but he is spared the tarnish of a rapist.

The aim is to make Cardenio a family-friendly production. Rape is difficult to discuss with nuance on the stage, and even more difficult to govern audience response to without depicting shocking scenes of violence. By reducing the problem to one of, essentially, fidelity – as stressed in Dorotea’s (new) closing speech where she stresses that, according to their contract, they are already married – Doran allows for a comic resolution, as Dorotea appeals to Fernando’s heart and he grows penitent, the two embracing in love.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. However, what is shown and spoken of in this production – even with the textual changes – is too serious for so light a treatment. His abuse of trust in order to satiate his own lust regardless of her own wishes is shocking, and needs to be interrogated on the modern stage, not glossed over and relegated to what, given today’s news stories, ends up coming across as a “less serious” form of rape.

Now, I'm aware that, because of my research, I'm unusually attuned to the textual changes and the interpretive decisions that have gone into this production as compared with Double Falsehood, and I wouldn't expect others to necessarily pick up on the things I'm talking about. I'm not voicing this as an all-encompassing condemnation of the production, nor suggesting that it somehow (intentionally or not) legitimises a form of rape. But in tonight's performance, Dorotea’s agency in the sexual act was visible enough to allow a substantial portion of the audience to laugh in relief as the rapist absolved himself of his own crime. And however much I want to apologise for the production, that sickened me.

April 29, 2011

Macbeth (RSC) @ The Royal Shakespeare Theatre

The first new production in the re-opened and redesigned RST is also the opening salvo of the RSC's fiftieth birthday celebration season. Artistic Director Michael Boyd christens the new space with a production very much in keeping with his principles - no celebrity names but a lead actor, Jonathan Slinger, who made his name coming up through the RSC ensemble; and a major tragedy pitched at the widest possible audience, schools-friendly without being sanitised or simplified.

Tom Piper's set was stunning. This Macbeth was set in a desecrated church, and costume placed us squarely within the English Reformation. Shattered stained-glass windows stretched towards the eaves; piles of rubble and holes in stone walls spoke of violent destruction; and wooden panelling was painted with Catholic icons whose heads had been scratched out. The symbolic significance of this scene of destroyed religion was emphasised by the changes in the second set to a more puritanical church - the windows were shuttered over, the panelling was bare, the statues removed. As the world turned, so too were the representations of religion destroyed and then covered over, subject to implied external forces rather than governing actions. Yet the church continued to exert a powerful force over the players, drawing them into its rituals and symbols in an inescapable way.

Macbeth publicity art

The living representative of these changes was Scott Handy's unusually prominent Ross, priest to the regime. The play omitted the opening heath scene, instead beginning with three female cellists entering to a gallery and playing a low drone deliberately reminiscent of bagpipes. Then Howard Charles's Malcolm entered, taking the role of the bloody soldier, and stood mute and aghast. From a balcony, the black-robed Ross spoke "Doubtful it stood." Malcolm stood silent, and Ross repeated himself twice, then made as if to continue with the lines; at which point Malcolm jerked to life and delivered his war report to the assembled nobles. The message was obscure at this point, but the scene was repeated for Malcolm's concluding speech, as the embittered and weary Ross, again on a balcony, repeated three times "We shall not spend..." before Malcolm finally pulled himself together to speak.

The significance was in Ross's transformation throughout the play. Handy's elegant and conscientous minister was present for all the key action, and increasingly dissociated from the living characters to become an almost choric link between this world and the next. The Old Man was removed from their two scenes, allowing Ross to address the audience in soliloquy over his fears. Macbeth's coronation was staged spectacularly, with Ross singing Pie Jesu and presiding as baptismal water poured from the ceiling and the Macbeths washed themselves ceremonially. On entering the home of the Macduffs, it was made clear that Ross knew the family well, and his closeness to the family was tinged with terror for their safety. In another soliloquy scene he cast his Catholic vestments against a wall, abjuring religion as his country fell apart, and his report to Malcolm and Macduff was grief-stricken. Later, he appeared marching with the ghosts of Banquo and Macduff's family, stony-faced and resolute. In the person of Ross, religion was breaking down in the face of grief and onslaught, and had lost faith in itself - by this time, Ross was in military garb. As Macbeth and Macduff fought, Ross passed silently through along with Lady Macduff, aligning him closely with the dead and transcendent as much as with the living. It was in this key that he fed Malcolm his closing lines, falling into a liminal spiritual space where the dead ventiloquised the living, casting Malcolm as the puppet of higher orders.

The presence of the dead, as is typical for Boyd, pervaded the production. On a comic note, Jamie Beamish's Seyton (who took the Porter's part) came in as an Irish suicide bomber with a belt of dynamite sticks under his cloak. I say comic as the audience responded appreciatively; but this seemed a crass and horrifically insensitive trivialisation of this stereotype in light of recent events in Belfast. Beamish lit dynamite sticks and put them down in front of members of the audience identified as equivocators, causing the audience to squirm as the fuses burned down. To Seyton's disappointment, they fizzled out; but he picked the sticks up and threw them behind a pile of rubble, where they exploded spectacularly. To the shrieking audience, he wagged a finger and reminded us "Never return to a firework once it's lit". The historical relevance to the Gunpowder Plot was, of course, not missed. Clad in red, in an intertextual reference to the Keeper of Boyd's Henry VI trilogy, this Porter became the keeper of Hell's gate, opening a door upstage to admit the reanimated corpses of Banquo and the Macduffs after their slaughters, and Macbeth at the play's conclusion.

The Witches were three children (two boys, one girl), who first appeared dangling from meathooks high above the stage. Tattered and with crosses daubed on their heads, they were clearly living corpses, alternately giggling and delivering cold prophecies. Later, it was revealed that the witches were in fact Macduff's children, who appeared hale and healthy with their mother playing with the same dolls that had recently acted as the embodied demons of Macbeth's second consultation (which concluded with the hideous image of hundreds of toy mannekins of Banquo descending from the ceiling). Macbeth's black-cloaked murderers entered and broke the neck of one boy, slit the throat of the other and suffocated the mother; then, even more creepily, led the young girl offstage in silence. She only reappeared as the Porter summoned the bodies of the dead, entering by herself and quietly following the Porter into the gates of hell. Where other productions have done something similar by showing the witches as victims of war in interpolated prologues, it was cleverly anti-linear to have the corpse-like children prefigure Macbeth's crime against them. The mother and children proceeded to stalk the stage, following Macduff during the final battles and accompanying Ross in cutting down branches of Birnam Forest.

Banquo (Steve Toussaint) was another strong visual presence, if not one of the better verse-speakers. Dread-locked and towering over the rest of the cast, he posed a significant threat to Macbeth and was ambitious in his own right, at one point giving Fleance a sword and mace and stepping back to see what his son would look like as a monarch. During the coronation a beautiful visual image was set up in the descrated church, with High Church ceremony and white robes on the ground level presided over by Ross while Banquo, the weird children, the Porter and the cellists gathered around the smashed stained glass windows on the upper level; Banquo already with one foot in the demonic world. His murder was effectively staged, with the murderers (Seyton was the third, though merely stood with a lamp) greeting Banquo as if a welcoming committee. They shook his hand and stabbed him; but he retained life long enough to hold them back as he screamed to Fleance to flee. Banquo's body was left on the stage and revived by Seyton. Later, during the banquet scene (played without a table as a drinks reception), the Ghost smashed through a door, a piece of which Macbeth picked up and wielded as a weapon against his persecutor; then, in his second appearance, he entered with a knife and bloodily murdered Macbeth, stabbing him in the back and slashing his throat. The interval fell on this gruesome and frankly unnecessary scene; which was then replayed at the start of the second half without the Ghost, allowing us to see what the assembled courtiers saw and appreciate his apparent madness. This device, famously used in Rupert Goold's recent production with Patrick Stewart, was here effective and allowed Slinger the chance to play up the comedy of the moment as he sat nonchalantly on the floor once his fit was passed and gazed up at his servants.

While the creative decisions made thus had some interest, the production was let down by generally weak or unmemorable performances. There were a few key exceptions - Scott Handy and Caroline Martin brought emotional edges to Ross and Lady Macduff in life, and a terrifying intensity to their roles in the final vengeance, that allowed us to invest in these relatively minor characters; and Nikesh Patel (an old Warwick student incidentally, great to see him on the main stage!) was a genuinely interesting Donalbain, tenderly seeing to his older brother in the opening scene, providing loud support for his father and offering a dynamic counterpoint to the more passive Malcolm, realised in a final battle against Macbeth that saw him dispatched hideously for his proactive stance. Howard Charles excelled as Malcolm during the England scene, bringing a melodrama to his performance of evil that rendered him truly fearsome in the face of Macduff; and the children worked hard in substantial roles.

It was in the lead roles that the production suffered. Slinger, one of my favourite actors, was a decent but uninteresting Macbeth, who most came alive in scenes of humour such as the banquet or his address to the cream-faced loon. He was strongest when standing atop a ladder that emerged from under the stage, calling for his armour as the English troops gathered below him. His habit of changing the pitch of his voice (high and colloquial for conversation, switching suddenly to deep for ominous moments or serious pronouncements) felt too self-consciously artificial, and the focus throughout on the visual rather subordinated the role amid the ghosts and spectacle, which Slinger was unable to rise above. A general through-line was discernable, however, with Macbeth beginning with barely-concealed ambition (his awkward bows to Malcolm and Duncan were particularly telling) and gradually distancing himself from his wife. In a production with so much pre-determination, however, Macbeth ultimately felt incidental.

More disappointing was Aislin McGuckin's Lady Macbeth, a controlled and intellectually ambitious woman who brooked no weakness from Macbeth and was increasingly left in the cold by him. While there was nothing wrong with this reading, it felt out of keeping with the rest of the production, and her delivery of lines was rote and flat. She was most interesting during the banquet, attempting to play the formal hostess and desperately laughing away Macbeth's actions. The sleepwalking scene passed almost unremarked as she scrubbed her hands in a bowl, shrieked a little and eventually saw herself offstage. Crucially, in a production haunted by the dead, she did not reappear after her death. Aidan Kelly's Macduff and Des McAleer's Duncan, meanwhile, were nothing more than functional.

This wasn't a poor production, then, but an oddly flat one that took far more interest in clever links and visual style than in text or character. The good work in the minor characters was offset by run-of-the-mill leads, and the play itself became a vehicle for directorial style. There were moments of great work - I had never before, for example, felt the power of the description of Edward the Confessor during the England scene, which resounded wonderfully with the religious setting - but these were too few and far between. What will remain are the images, including the glorious picture at the end as Lady Macduff and her children ascended to the gallery and opened the shutters, revealing the sun shining through perfectly restored stained glass windows, a moment of hope at the end of a bleak play.

A version of this review originally appeared at Shakespeare Revue.

April 24, 2011

Cardenio (RSC) @ The Swan Theatre, Stratford–upon–Avon

Writing about web page

"Shakespeare's 'Lost Play' Re-Imagined" runs the tag-line to this, the first full-scale new production in the Swan Theatre since its re-opening. The absence of John Fletcher (let alone Lewis Theobald) from this tag is perhaps inevitable given the RSC's priorities, although both are fully credited within the wider publicity material. This is the RSC's first (only?) big crack at Cardenio, and the company has been keen to emphasise the scholarly rationale behind the staging, with blogs and articles detailing the production's sources in Cervantes, Shelton and Theobald. While I've seen and reviewed several productions of Double Falsehood over the last few months, however, it should be noted that this was emphatically NOT a production of Theobald's play. While Double Falsehood provided the majority of the text, this was an attempt at a conjectural reconstruction of Cardenio, versifying and interpolating material from Don Quixote along with new text and fleshing out the play. This review will inevitably be comparing Cardenio with Double Falsehood, but the two turned out to be interestingly different plays.


The production began with a coffin, positioned before iron gates that divided the stage in two and stood primarily for the gates of Don Bernardo's house, physically stressing the family divide that relates the play to Romeo and Juliet. Candles burned and Catholic choristers led a group of courtiers in chants behind the gate. Into this sacred environment stepped Alex Hassell as Fernando (the Henriquez character; most were renamed after the Don Quixote source characters), who slowly got into the coffin and lay down, arms crossed. As the funereal party moved to unlock the gates, Fernando quickly left up and exited. Already, he was established as the transgressive figure to watch, with a hint of his tendencies towards self-destruction. As the rest of the cast entered, it became clear that the coffin was being prepared well in advance of the Duke's death, much to the dismay of elder son Pedro (Simeon Moore, the Roderigo character).

The changes to Double Falsehood made by director Greg Doran and Spanish dramaturg Antonio Alamo were wide-reaching, particularly in the play's first half. New scenes including an opening spar between the bickering Cardenio (Julio) and Luscinda (Leonora); scenes between Pedro, Cardenio and Fernando at court which were particularly important in establishing the friendship of the latter two men; a scene of further wooing between Fernando and Dorotea (Violante) framed by a Spanish fiesta and, in the second half, a scene set in the nunnery featuring Luscinda's abduction. There was extensive rewriting throughout the rest of the play, including major changes to both the wedding and the conclusion, which I'll discuss in their turn. By the same token, Fabian and Lopez were cut (along with any vestiges of a sub- or parallel plot) and, more bizarrely, the scene in which Dorotea employs a servant to help disguise her as a boy was also omitted.

The relationship between Oliver Rix and Lucy Briggs-Owen as Cardenio and Luscinda was established effectively. With the imposing, auditorium-high gates often between them, the nervous Cardenio was often reduced to staring through the bars as Luscinda glided past, invariably accompanied by a Duenna and Maid. Out of his social sphere, and intimidated by Nicholas Day's blustering Don Bernardo, Cardenio became a Romeo-esque lover, comically floundering about for lines of poetry and making grand promises, while quailing beneath Luscinda's steely gaze. Initially, I deeply disliked Briggs-Owen's very modern Luscinda, who stood with hands on hips, scornful derision and a general "talk to the hand" confidence that ill suited the formal period setting. While these mannerisms and expressions felt crass, it did help establish the difference in their demeanours, and as the play went on Briggs-Owen settled into a far calmer and more appropriately emotional vein. She was a dynamic figure who both challenged Cardenio and gave him confidence in her proactive approach; and she clashed dramatically with her obstinate father while Cardenio looked meekly on. This conflict became the production's early focal point, as the wilful Luscinda refused to yield to parental control yet struggled to find ways out.

This culminated in the wedding scene, which aimed to turn the Cardenio/Luscinda relationship into the focal point. Cardenio arrived, disguised in the Citizen's cloak, and Luscinda showed him her dagger and pushed him protesting into a corner, ordering him to hide. This suited the relationship already established, with Cardenio allowing Luscinda to take the lead. As the wedding party entered and Luscinda was led to her new husband, however, she grabbed for the dagger but was unable to find it. The priest began the vows and a distraught Luscinda, not knowing what to do with her plans thwarted, ended up stuttering a "Yea", then fainted as Fernando placed a ring on her finger. She was carried out, and the wedding broke up. Left alone, Cardenio soliloquised about his own passivity and Luscinda's cruelty, before leaving quietly to run mad in the forest. I found this unconvincing and dramatically inert; in Double Falsehood, events come to a head in a moment of extreme violence during which Julio is ejected from the church, and madness becomes a passion borne out of rejection and the betrayal of a friend. This far more considered "madness" didn't chime with his subsequent ravings, which dwelled primarily on the Fernando treachery; the introduction of a complication between the two lovers was unnecessary and was not addressed in their reunion in the final scene.

The least adapted roles were those of the two fathers, who retained their comic function (particularly Christopher Godwin's Camillo) but with a great deal of pathos, particularly as they bewailed their losses to Pedro. The scene of Bernardo's flouting of Camillo was a particular joy, with Day relishing every word in a slow, sarcastic delivery that brought on an apopleptic fit in Godwin. The two eventually resorted to pushing each other pompously, before Bernardo distracted Camillo by pointing behind him, then running to the gates which he locked in Camillo's face. Pedro later discovered Camillo still standing before the gates, rattling his stick against them in fury. The compact between the three, little adapted from Theobald's text, was a high point of dignity that set up the "quest" element of the second half neatly.

A new scene between Cardenio and Fernando saw the two of them, following a riding session, telling each other about their respective loves. Hassell's wonderful Fernando channelled Lord Flashheart (of Blackadder), making of the Duke's son an unpredictable, tempestuous, loud cad. Jumping onto a vaulting horse, he boasted of Dorotea and showed unashamed interest in Cardenio's description of Luscinda. This spoiled lord showed his colours when Cardenio advised him against pursuing Dorotea, jumping down from the horse and advancing on his friend in a spirit of anger, before laughing and embracing him. Everyone, Pedro included, was cautious around Fernando, wary of his temper and flammable humour.

Cardenio publicity art

Particularly interesting was how funny Fernando was. His charismatic excesses brought the audience onside, and excused to some extent his brash behaviour. This became hugely complicated as the wooing of Dorotea commenced. At first it was purely comic, including overwrought instructions to confused musicians and a pleading tone to Dorotea (appearing at a balcony) that rendered him somewhat pathetic. The humour of the character, however, did mean that the audience continued laughing even as he asserted his right to her body and announced he would bribe her maid, keeping it firmly within a comic vein. The new seduction scene (which followed his conversation with Cardenio at court, and was thus separated in time) was framed by a fiesta featuring masked revellers carrying large sexual puppets that were tossed together on a blanket and left in a mess of limbs on the ground, making explicit the tone of Fernando's mission. Yet the scene itself made the nature of their interaction extremely ambiguous. He sneaked into her room and, initially, attempted to force himself on her, despite her anger and pleading. As they talked in the heat of fear and passion, promises were exchanged on both sides, and she handed him marriage as a solution, which he accepted. The scene closed as he began to kiss her and she (difficult to see) appeared to stop resisting. The overall impression was one of consensual sex under false pretences, rather than enforced rape. This was emphasised in a small but significant textual change as Fernando left. Where in Double Falsehood he says "True, she did not consent; as true she did resist, but still in silence all," here he said "True, she did consent..." While the intent was clearly to attempt to make Dorotea's pursuit of Fernando palatable to a modern audience, it had the effect of reducing the extent of Fernando's crime; as did the delay of his pursuit of Luscinda until after another interpolated scene where Cardenio showed him Luscinda's house and the maid herself, at only which point did Fernando decide to woo her for himself.

While I happen to think the stronger rape narrative implied by Double Falsehood offers a more challenging and important set of issues, this extremely significant change did bring the play more into line with the Cardenio story and Jacobean sensibilities. Further, it allowed Fernando to gradually increase in maliciousness rather than peak in his first appearances. His overpowering presence and sycophantic deferrence to Bernardo were loathed by Luscinda, and the nunnery scene was especially effective. An oddly comic nun offered some pedantic banter with Luscinda, which offset the arrival of the coffin. Luscinda (the report of whose flight was passed over quickly at the end of the first half) then sat before the coffin, assuming it was Cardenio but afraid to look. Suddenly, the coffin lid flew off (to screams from the audience) and Fernando emerged, clasping his hand over her mouth and forcing her into the coffin, inside which she continued to shout while the nuns were trapped behind locked gates and Pedro looked on aghast. This most significant instance of Fernando's violence built nicely towards the play's concluding action.

Simeon Moore's Pedro offered a powerful contrast to his brother throughout. While his portentous tone sometimes grated, he offered a tremulous and conscientous noble, bewildered by the acts of treachery he saw about him and with a fury that caused him to shake as he addressed Fernando in the final scene. Moore found tremendous personality and complexity in this man, who initially attempted to ignore Violante in her page outfit and struggled with his own conscience regarding Luscinda.

The second half began with autumn leaves spread about the stage, the gates removed and a reflective backdrop giving the impression of wide open spaces. The shepherds, dressed in winter clothes and sitting in a work attitude, gossipped and joked together without becoming openly comic. The gentle pastoral atmosphere came from a director who understands Fletcher, and provided an elegiac tone for Cardenio's mad scenes. Dishevelled and sore, his distractedness oscillated between moments of direct action (such as his recognition of "Fernando" in the face of the Second Shepherd") and wandering speeches which drew him aimlessly among the locals, who watched him with caution bred from familiarity. The comic action of these scenes included an attempt to leap at a "Fernando" in the audience, which saw Cardenio caught in mid-air by two of the shepherds; and the picking up of the Second Shepherd by the nose, a battle which resulted in all of the cast being knocked to the stage. Timothy Speyer's Master was a short and lecherous villain, who couldn't keep his hands off his boy and came very close to raping Dorotea before Roderick's interruption.

The two shepherds who stayed with Cardenio were fleshed out nicely with conversation and ideas of taking him to the nearest town to be cured. They faded into the background as he listened to the song of Pippa Nixon's Dorotea. Nixon made for a strait-laced Dorotea, pleading and self-sufficient but continually scared by the advances of men. Following her song and descent to the stage, she took out a dagger and prepared to kill herself, but was prevented by Cardenio. The character's earnestness was well-played by Nixon, and her earlier interactions with Fernando displayed her quick thinking and fast talking.

The final scene pulled together the stories to mixed effect. Set in what appeared to be a Spanish bar, with servants setting up tables and women beating blankets, it made for an odd environment for the Duke and fathers to set up court in. For the most part, the action played out as in Double Falsehood, with Pedro reintroducing Luscinda to her father (realised in a simple but touching embrace) and Fernando to his father. Fernando humbled himself appropriately and apologised for his faults, while the Duke castigated him and instructed Luscinda on obedience. Dorotea was brought in as Florio and told her story, to the belief of all except the outraged Fernando, then left to effect her change. At this point began the extensive rewriting.

Cardenio was brought in, still dishevelled, and stood before the group. Fernando stepped forward, and began his denial before recognising him. He drew slowly closer and knelt before his wronged friend... and then lashed out, beating and attempting to kill him. The two fought, and Cardenio eventually threw Fernando against some chairs at the back of the room. Cardenio was then reunited with his father and THEN Luscinda, reversing the order. As the lovers kissed, Fernando reappeared, felled Cardenio and grabbed Luscinda. At this point Dorotea re-entered and dissuaded Fernando from further disgrace with a long speech. This ending was undeniably more interesting than the straightforward and carefully stage-managed reunions of Double Falsehood, but jarred; following Fernando's apology to his father, the attempt to kill Cardenio in the presence of the Duke made no sense (unless Fernando was far madder than he was played) and felt like an unnecessary attempt to spice up the climax and give Dorotea more to do. What this effectively did was change the cause of Fernando's repentance from a series of small humiliations (the return of Luscinda, his humbling before the joke, the revelation of Dorotea, the reunion with Cardenio) to a single speech by Dorotea, which was unconvincing and overly simplistic. However, it introduced a welcome note of ambiguity into the reunions, as the joy of the fathers was marred by the quiet and troubled faces of Luscinda and Cardenio, both abused by Fernando, and the tentative attempts of Fernando himself to apologise to Dorotea.

A final Spanish dance closed the production on a strong and musical note (and mention should be made of Paul Englishby's gorgeous Spanish-inflected live score, whose effect on the overall production cannot be adequately articulated nor understated by me). My discussion of the textual adaptation should not detract from the fact that this was a joyous, well-performed and confident production. While some of the changes were welcome and some were unnecessary, very few actually diminished the play, and as a putative reconstruction of Cardenio it was intelligent, accessible and designed to appeal to the widest possible crowd, without reducing the action to mere Shakespearean parallels. What is most important is that the combination of Theobald's play and Cervantes's story worked extremely well on the Swan stage and made the strongest case yet for the value of Double Falsehood to the modern repertory, in being the primary source for a thoroughly enjoyable entertainment.

March 18, 2011

The Tempest (Little Angel Theatre/RSC) @ The Swan Theatre

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What a treat to be back in the Swan. I haven't been inside my favourite Stratford theatre since The Penelopiad back in 2007, and it's wonderful to see it looking (on the inside, at any rate) exactly as it did before the closure, albeit with more comfortable seats. The first full production in there will be Cardenio, but the space has been warming up with some smaller shows including this, a new collaboration between the RSC and the Little Angel Theatre on The Tempest.

This production had a much more substantial human element than the last Little Angel take on Shakespeare, the excellent Venus and Adonis. Here, all of the human characters were played by costumed humans (although Miranda did carry a small doll version of herself) in a relatively straight, though highly edited, version aimed at children. Against a backdrop of curved rocks (arranged as if the inverted skeleton of some enormous sea beast), the cast wore traditional period dress evoking received images of the characters: David Fielder's Prospero wore flowing robes and a full beard; the courtiers rich, red robes and headwear; the clowns doublet and hose.

The text was heavily cut for its young audience, with sections of new verse and songs added to explicate plot elements more clearly. This had the additional effect of shifting the emphasis of the play towards simpler and more conservative elements, such as the Miranda/Ferdinand romance. In a lovely scene, the two carried logs jointly, danced and flirted innocently, while the rest of the cast sat at the back of the stage and sang a gently mocking love song ("Is it love?" "Could be" "Possibly" "Might well be" "It isn't entirely unlikely" etc.). This sweet sequence exaggerated the centrality of the love plot in relation to the other subplots, which were both heavily cut, and provided the main source of investment. Fielder's Prospero wept openly as he finally gifted Ferdinand his daughter.

The appeal towards traditional settings and conservative priorities is, unfortunately, endemic of children's theatre. In striving for accessibility, inevitably and understandably, productions reach back towards received images of a play, banking on a universal base level of recognisability. While the appeal is obvious, making use of stock types and childrens' burgeoning awareness, it can have the unfortunate consequence of retaining outmoded values. I'm thinking in particular of this production's Caliban, a man-sized puppet voiced by Jonathan Dixon who was a cross between an ape and a turtle, and spoke slowly and simply. The image of Caliban as the mentally-deficient man-monkey throwback, in my view, hits too closely towards the old racial stereotyping that used to inform Calibans, and it was a disappointment to see this on the RSC stage. Ariel, meanwhile, was a green pixie, a couple of feet high, who was carried around the stage in the act of flight, aiming for the ephemerality and lightness of the spirit.

The puppet performers carried their characters about the stage, pushing the bodies forward to act the words which were spoken openly by the handler. This was especially effective in the case of Caliban, whose sheer size and physicality allowed him to interact fully with the other characters, particularly as he and Stephano sat down next to each other and Caliban put his arms conspiratorially around his new king. Caliban was primarily comic, with a puppyish eagerness to please and a habit of growling deeply when resentful. While he was prodigiously strong (repeatedly flattening Stephano with thumps to his back), this monster was ultimately fearful and pathetic, and easily cowed.

The remainder of the puppet content was used for magical spectacle, aside from the seagulls that gently flew round the stage at the play's beginning and end. An unfurling cloth banner allowed for two instances of shadow play - one with wire models of Ferdinand and Miranda in place of the masque scene, and one to reveal them in silhouette playing chess in the cave. The former of these was particularly effective, beginning with Prospero opening a book with reflective pages, which he directed to throw patterns against the cloth behind which the silhouettes slowly appeared. Ferdinand and Miranda approached their doppelgangers in awe and slowly began performing the same dance, coming closer to kiss. Prospero's interruption of this gentle sequence was especially jarring.

The puppets were also used horrifically. Three large covered platters were placed in corners of the stage for the "men of sin", which they cautiously raised. From beneath emerged three monstrously coloured and huge fish, which writhed and threatened as Ariel's voice boomed across the stage, in a genuinely scary sequence accompanied by thunder and lightning. Less scary, but amusingly effective, were the two dresses lowered from the ceiling for Trinculo and Stephano to marvel at. The two danced with their new "women" until the dresses took on lives of their own, hovering above Stephano and knocking him to his back in what he took to be a sexual game. Suddenly, the performers inverted the dresses, and the enormous heads of rabid dogs emerged, barking and snapping at the terrified clowns.

Brett Brown's Stephano was the highlight among the performers, a heavy-drinking, swaggering figure who peed into buckets, vomitted into audience laps and wandered through the audience winking and snatching programmes. He was accompanied by the hard-working Ruth Calkin who took on the bulk of the singing as well as playing Trinculo and Gonzalo, and the joking relationship with the foolish Caliban acted to break up the more serious action. The lords were more conventional, acting largely to keep the plot ticking along but making little greater impact, even though Christopher Staines did some nice work as a smug Antonio.

It was the relationship between Prospero and Anneika Rose's Miranda that was most effective. Rose played Miranda as a wide-eyed innocent, again in line with traditional readings, but treated her father with a mixture of reverence and hurt confusion. Fielder, meanwhile, played Prospero with surprising range, including an avuncular jocularity towards Ferdinand and tender affection for Ariel. which saw him jokingly shake his head at the question "Do you love me, master?" before smiling and replying "Dearly". Yet there was an edge to the character too. The "We are such things as dreams are made on" speech was delivered in a tone of deep sarcasm and anger, to the confusion of his daughter and son-in-law; and at other times a bitterness emerged from the character. Upon breaking his staff across his knee, a visible weight was lifted from him, and he straightened up, smiling, before running in joy from the island. Ariel grew wings and began flying among the seagulls, while the abashed Caliban returned to the stage and grunted in pleasure as one of the gulls nestled on his head. The lights faded on a simple, conventional and lovely version of the play that showcased the beautiful art of the Little Angel Theatre. It may have been behind its time as a reading, but played to purpose effectively.

March 26, 2010

Romeo and Juliet (RSC) @ The Courtyard Theatre

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From its very opening, Rupert Goold's new Romeo and Juliet was intent on forcing its audience to view a familiar play afresh. Sam Troughton's Romeo, in jeans and hoodie, wandered onto the stage with a camera, taking photographs as if a tourist (though this amateur stalker had a different kind of attraction in mind) while listening to an Italian-language tape that repeated the Prologue in both Italian and English. As Romeo saw his Verona anew, so too were we asked to throw aside our usual attitudes to Romeo and Juliet and rediscover the play.

The opening statement of intent pulled few punches. The brawl between Capulets and Montagues quickly accelerated against a background of Catholic candles and projected flames. Capulet and Montague themselves engaged in a protracted broadsword battle while their wives scratched at each other's faces; servants tussled with a variety of improvised weapons, sending up jets of smoke from the stage as they struck each other; and finally, in a wonderfully powerful moment, the stuttering Benvolio turned to see Joseph Arkley's Tybalt, with heavy Scottish brogue, emerge as if from Hell itself, through the iron bars and flames. Striking a match, Tybalt threw it to the floor, provoking a firebolt to roar up in Benvolio's face. This monster proceeded to tie Benvolio to a stake and smother him with petrol, and the makeshift cremation was only prevented by the last minute arrival of Escalus and a barrage of fire extinguishers.

Heat and fire pervaded the production, from the bloody rage of Romeo's later murder of Tybalt to the passionate flames between the young lovers. It was well suited to a rare production of the play that had genuine emotional clout at every level. Goold's Romeo and Juliet was a tragedy of impetuosity, uncontrollable passion and instinctive decisions that saw its young protagonists running headlong towards destruction.

This was perhaps best realised in Jonjo O'Neill's spectacular Mercutio, in a performance one can only describe as "unleashed". Dashing in cape and peroxide blonde hair, O'Neill really was the gentleman "that loves to hear himself talk" (II.iii.138), running off his long speeches with a frenzied energy that at times became terrifying in its vehemence (Oliver Ryan's twitchy Benvolio spent much of his time looking at his friend aghast). Repeatedly lost in self-delusion and performative narcissism, O'Neill received spontaneous applause for several of his set-pieces, most notably a hysterically hideous interlude where, calling for the hidden Romeo, he began miming Romeo's copulation with Rosaline. Getting engrossed in his own thrusting action, the simulacrum became more violent and ecstatic, before Mercutio mimed actually crawling inside Rosaline and began an entirely surreal Alice in Wonderland parody which saw him taking tea with invisible strangers and squelching around in vaginal juices before, in a paroxysm of terror, rushing to escape and "rebirthing" himself into the world. Appalling to describe, it nonetheless had the audience quite literally collapsing in the aisles. His mockery of the Nurse, meanwhile, became an improvised music hall routine culminating in his screaming of "WHORE!" in her face followed by a slapstick chase around the stage. This character existed beyond the boundaries of normal social behaviour, his reckless excesses rendering him at once entertaining and extremely dangerous. These extra-textual performances did threaten to unbalance the production, which invariably struggled to recover following his grand exits, but served the larger purpose of destabilising the story and making it unpredictable once more.

O'Neill's performance was also part of a concerted effort to make the play funny once more, particularly in the first half. From the opening disarming of the Capulets and Montagues, where Capulet laid down a veritable arsenal of personal weaponry concealed about him, to Mercutio's brandishing of a bicycle pump against Tybalt and the Nurse's flirtatious treatment of Friar Laurence, there was plenty to laugh at in this world. Grown-ups were as impulsive and reckless as their children; and while this was a source of comedy, it was also a source of great pathos. A breakfast scene between the Capulets was a highlight as Mariah Gale's Juliet was berated for defying her father. In dressing gown, Richard Katz cut an initially comic figure as Capulet before bringing out a terrifying intensity and violence against his daughter: throwing water at her, screaming in her face and leaving her sobbing on the floor. These were not the stock actions of a stage tyrant, but the all-too-believable bullying of a recognisable father. Even more upsetting was the sight of Christine Entwistle's Lady Capulet in the same scene. Fabulous in her earlier appearances at the Capulet's ball, Lady Capulet was badly hit by the death of Tybalt, and Entwistle transformed into a dewigged, chain-smoking manic depressive, bitter at both family and foes and careless of her daughter's anguish. Following these, Noma Dumezweni's Nurse encouraged and comforted Juliet, giving the impression of care but then going on to tell her to take a second husband. Between the three, then, Juliet was attacked physically by her father, passively by her mother and insidiously by her Nurse, driving her to a peak of despair that finally broke forth as she stood in Friar Laurence's cell, pressing a knife against her chest and screaming for release. The potential of this string of action in the hands of good actors was fully realised here, investing the audience in Juliet's plight.

The casting of Gale and Sam Troughton as the titular lovers was perhaps the production's best decision: rather than prioritise the appearance of youth and pluck actors straight out of drama school (which has been the killing blow for so many recent productions), the RSC recognised that experienced actors can act young, while also having the far greater range earned through years of performing Shakespeare. Gale's Juliet was marvellous, a teenager beginning to become confident with her body and public image but also prone to regressing into childish habits when cornered. She danced a wild and charged dance with masked revellers for the benefit of her father's party guests and was confident enough to kiss Romeo in the centre of the throng and then leave him hanging for more; yet in only the next scene she was kicking her heels while sitting on the ledge of her balcony, a child once more. Juliet was, in the best possible sense, not an innocent child: she knew what she wanted and how to get it, but her insistence on doing things properly and not rushing positioned her as the partner thinking of the long term.

Troughton's Romeo, meanwhile, was a creature of instinct and immediate gratification. Every time he kissed Juliet he made to start taking off his clothes, and had to be restrained by her. His inconstancy in changing affections, and his overdramatising of every situation, was lightly mocked but sympathetic, treated as the inevitable state of youth. This Romeo had at least one eye constantly on the heavens; racked by internal conflict (right from the start, a physical tic had him pressing a finger hard into his temples, as if suffering constantly from a superfluity of thoughts) and external, he addressed Fate, gods and the stars as a matter of course, relating his own suffering to its universal significance. As a counterpart to Mercutio, he was similarly preoccupied with the extremes of emotion and understanding, and his speed of action and speech left him little time to think. His stillest moment was at the close of the long first half: with murder, marriage and banishment all behind him, he finally approached Juliet's balcony, climbed up and embraced her, the lights going down as they began to consummate their marriage. This moment of stillness was pivotal to Romeo. When we next met him in exile, his greeting of the news of Juliet's death was met in relative calm and his subsequent actions were desperate but considered. Sex, for this Romeo, was the moment of growing up.

Among the minor characters, some of Goold's decisions worked better than others. The decision to have Gruffudd Glyn's Balthasar deliver his news of Juliet's death in a broken falsetto song was tonally disruptive: it was presumably meant to be a ritualised moment of mourning, but instead had the audience laughing. Far better was the decision to clothe Patrick Romer's Apothecary (the second time he's played the role for the RSC in the last five years) identically to Romeo, the two hooded men mirroring each other as they exchanged their respective poisons. Dyfan Dwyfor's Peter was comic and elegantly dressed as a page, but pleasingly not made ridiculous. James Howard's Paris was dignified, and David Carr's Escalus brought a strong sense of personal emotion into his pronouncements.

Dumezweni's Nurse was a strong comic presence throughout the play, self-possessed and sassy whether helping to dress Lady Capulet or flirting in a mask at the Capulet's Ball. She even enjoyed Mercutio's initial taunting, until his excesses incited her to physically threaten him. The tenderness between her and Juliet made her final "betrayal" of her ward the more heartbreaking from Juliet's perspective. This relationship neatly mirrored that of Romeo and Mercutio, whose earlier likeness made Mercutio's condemning of the two houses the more powerful. Stabbed by a retracting blade concealed in Tybalt's glove, the humour of his dying situation never left him, but as he staggered backwards up a flight of steps (ascending towards the bright lights of the afterlife), his growing distance from Romeo at ground level physically realised their irrevocable separation.

The same flight of steps led down to the Capulet's tomb for a well-performed finale. Aside from toying with the audience by having Juliet stir behind Romeo's back before he drank the poison, the emotion of the dual deaths was effective, particularly as Juliet stirred to find Romeo's head in her lap but point-blank refused to accept what she saw. Forbes Masson's Friar Laurence (very strong throughout) stood at the top of the steps pleading with her to leave, but the blocking meant she could see nothing but the head of her beloved in her lap, at which she finally, emotionally, broke down.

In an intelligent final twist, the mix of Elizabethan and contemporary costume elements that had run throughout the play was exchanged in the final moments for a deliberately uniform modern mundanity of dress. Balthasar accompanied Romeo to the tomb in full Elizabethan dress, but was brought back by the police in a hoodie and trainers. Police detectives with radios descended into the tomb, accompanied by the Capulets and Montagues in everyday clothes. This simple visual shift translated the melodramatic tragedy into the kind of news story that we're all familiar with, as parents tried to make sense of something they had no way of comprehending. Romeo and Juliet lay frozen, out of time, but to their parents the paint was entirely present, and for the disillusioned and pessimistic police officers it was even routine. Our youthful excesses and romanticisation of suicide and drama may lead us to tragedy, but the results of those tragedy are neither romantic nor dramatic. Where Romeo anticipated universal significance in his death, he received only a domestic mourning from his grieving parents. It was this that seemed to be the ultimate point of Goold's reading, a downbeat end to a powerful production.

This review originally appeared at Shakespeare Revue.