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July 29, 2012

Isles of Wonder

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There's so much been written on the London 2012 Opening Ceremony that I certainly don't feel the need to talk at length about the event. Suffice to say, I thought it was a bold and wonderful opening, celebratory while keeping its tongue at least partly in its cheek, self-deprecating and triumphant. The Bond/Queen and Bean sections were theatrical coups; the internet/music sequence had a baffling and unnecessary narrative which, thankfully, didn't detract from a fabulous celebration of Britain's achievements in music and film; the tribute to children's literature was gorgeous and the political statement justly felt; and I thought the cauldron looked terrific and the choice of the final torchbearers a great touch.

My compatriot Jem Bloomfield has written eloquently about the Shakespeare contribution - Kenneth Branagh, dressed as Isambard Kingdom Brunel, speaking Caliban's lines from The Tempest, 'be not afeard', and I thought I'd add my tuppence worth. I'm not interested so much in where these words came from as what they were doing in Brunel's mouth at this particular moment.

Kenneth Branagh
Kenneth Branagh as Isambard Kingdom Brunel

Among all the furore over certain groups branding the ceremony too "leftie" (especially the idiotic Aidan Burley MP), I felt particularly bemused, as this section of the ceremony left a slightly sour taste in my mouth on account of its presentation of more conservative values. Was this a celebration? We watched a halcyon vision of Britain's bucolic past torn apart by industrialists, who removed the landscape in choroegraphed, machine-like movements, creating a smoking industrial landscape that forged the Olympic rings out of the ashes of the countryside. It's an oddly ambivalent moment to celebrate, and the ceremony seemed to know this. The evocation of Lord of the Rings imagery, the confusion of the Revolution and the groups it brought together, wandering lost among the smokestacks (rather like the paddy-field farmer in the cartoon introduction to Have I Got News For You), the wealthy industrialists becoming rich at the expense of the faceless masses; it was, in many ways, a nightmarish opening. I'm not quite sure what the fireworks-spewing rings at the conclusion of this sequence were meant to say, exactly - don't worry, the destruction of the countryside was worth it if we get to hold the Olympics? The wealthy have made all this possible? To my mind, it works best in the context of the entire show, where those values were thrown into contrast with the NHS sequence that so outraged Conservatives and Republicans.

What was most remarkable about Branagh's performance, to my mind, was the glimpses we got of him walking round, smoking a cigar and smirking at the Revolution he had instigated. Narratively, I suppose I would have liked to see a little more sense of this spiralling out of control, the "What have I wrought?" moment. But perhaps this was implicit enough in the lines with which he began the show. In Brunel's mouth, the words of Caliban's speech became the capitalist dream that Cheek by Jowl played with in their Russian-language production.

[A]nd then in dreaming,
The clouds, methought, would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
I cried to dream again.

It was the riches that Brunel longed for, that provided the drive and inspiration that led him, Saruman-like, to tear up his country's green spaces. Where the nature of the riches Caliban imagines are left deliciously open to interpretation, Brunel's were material. I couldn't help but be reminded of Caliban's much later line:

Let it alone, thou fool; it is but trash.

When Stephano and Trinculo are presented with riches that have appeared magically from the air/Ariel, Caliban is the one awake to their true nature. Perhaps I'm over-reading, but I can't help but feel that it's in the last line of the earlier speech that the difference between Brunel and Caliban can be seen. Caiban "cried to dream again". His instant recourse is to the imaginative world, not to an attempt to realise or own the music he has heard. It is at other points in the play that he attempts to take action, to disastrous effect. Brunel, conversely, immediately aimed to turn his dream of riches into a reality. His usurpation of the "isle of wonder" may not be the same as Prospero's, but the march of industrial capitalism at the expense of nature is, of course, a staple trope and one associated with the coloniser (see Avatar and a million better books and films).

To debate whether Brunel was 'Caliban' or 'Prospero' in this fantasy, however, is something of a red herring. The point is about appropriation, with Brunel colonising and disrupting Caliban's words just as he subsequently did to the landscape. In looking to the artificial clouds that hovered in the stadium and praying for riches to fall from them, Danny Boyle both literalised the image and rendered it a tagline for a capitalist dream. I'm not sure we were meant to celebrate this, exactly, but Branagh made it feel terrifyingly appropriate.

June 10, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 29, 2012

Radio Shakespeare: Twelfth Night (BBC Drama on 3)

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I listened last night to the BBC's new radio production of Twelfth Night, starring David Tennant, Ron Cook, Naomi Frederick and a host of other fantastic actors. I'm not going to offer a review, as I can't claim to particularly like or enjoy radio drama. It did, however, force me to ask a couple of questions of myself regarding how I experience the form.

Quite simply, I struggle to see what people get out of the form. I have always held up my hands and admitted that my interest in Shakespearean performance is in staging. The language is, of course, an important part of that, but the dialogue is contextualised by blocking, proxemics, expression, visual elements, audience response etc. While I have no objection to a purely auditory experience of listening to actors speak Shakespeare's verse, I don't personally get a great deal out of it.

Further, on the basis of this production and others I've heard, I'm concerned that radio productions of Shakespeare tend towards the most conservative possible reading of the play. The use of sound effects throughout evoked in me the impression of a 19th century theatrical production, obsessed with accuracy of set and setting - to the extent that, at the end of the gulling scene, Malvolio and Fabian triumphed in the garden; and then there was a quick break, the sound of a door slamming, and the clowns arriving back at the house to congratulate Maria. Throughout, the aim appeared to be to create the impression of a lived, naturalistic setting, yoking the play to real places rather than the fluid spaces that characterise early modern drama.

The performances were fine. I particularly enjoyed Tennant's growling Scots Malvolio and Cook's belching, slurring Sir Toby (reprising a role he's played very effectively on stage, of course). But the medium appears to me to appeal to the most ingrained, obvious readings of characters. I can understand why purists might enjoy this kind of drama - what it does do is focus attention on the text, and forces actors to work with the humour of the words rather than, in the current RSC fashion, inserting crotch-grabs and fart jokes as easy cues. Still, I long to hear a radio production that does something truly extraordinary with a play, something that innovates rather than consolidates.

March 11, 2012

Digital Programmes – The Comedy of Errors (NT Live)

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When I attended the live screening of The Comedy of Errors last week, I was disappointed to find that only free cast lists were available in the foyer - there was not the opportunity to buy a physical programme, as available in the theatre. However, I realised yesterday that the National is advertising digital programmes to accompany the NT Live broadcast productions, so I decided to experiment and download the material for this production.

It's a wonderful idea. The limitations of the print programme are manifest, full as a standard one is with advertising and bound to words and images. The digital programme, by contrast, allows the National to make use of its impressive digital technology to create something more interactive and dynamic.

Firstly, it's an extremely attractive interface. Navigable with cursor keys, it looks like a print programme but with a cleanness and fluidity that belies the specificity of the content. Everything you would expect - an introduction to the theatre, a cast list, a synopsis etc. - is present and correct, but content is grouped under specific pages. Thus, there is one page for adverts, and if you would like to see more you can scroll down; if you want to pass through, you can skip directly to the next type of content. There are long essays by Jonathan Bate and Adrian Poole on Shakepeare's cities, finely illustrated, and a long illustrated biographies article.

Most exciting, though, is the digital content itself. The image gallery is particularly impressive, featuring fourteen huge, hi-res production images, the kind of quality which one can't get in a print programme. There is also the trailer for the production, which features video and audio footage from the production (including the band's cover of Crazy) as well as fun graphics.

It's a stunning idea, and I hope it's something the theatre continues to work on. More kinds of content would diversify it even more - why not include creative interviews, for example, or some of the stock video footage of the National's history that was frustrating to be forced to sit through during previous NT Live broadcasts, but would be great to revisit at leisure. Well worth the purchase, and I'll do so again in future.

January 09, 2012

The Duchess of Malfi (Blood and Thunder) @ Hall's Croft, Stratford–upon–Avon (archive video)

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I'm beginning the year with a binge of EM drama film recordings, including Greenwich Theatre's Volpone, Kozintsev's Hamlet, Taymor's Tempest, Doran's Winter's Tale and Fiennes's Coriolanus, one or two of which I may review here. One pleasure of this quiet patch is the chance to finally catch up with a production I missed in the summer owing to my travels - Blood and Thunder Theatre Company's outdoor production of Webster's The Duchess of Malfi.

I can't really give it a proper review, as it only survives on an archive video that, unfortunately, was recorded on a rather blustery day at the expense of audibility. However, the production exemplifies Blood and Thunder's approach - an intimate, fluid and fluent version, stripped down to some basic props and sumptuous costumes, set against the rather splendid backdrop of Hall's Croft.

The simple setting allowed the performances to come to the fore, most obviously in a fun wooing scene between Kelley Costigan's austere but playful Duchess and Jose A. Perez Diez's upstanding Antonio. What the production (directed by Maria Jeffries) clearly understood was the formalities of court and courtship, which were played up to and then dismantled for dramatic effect - the fun of this scene was in watching the two trade politenesses while coming longingly to their shared agreement, while Helen Osborne's furtive Cariola his behind an arras, pointing up the staged quality of the Duchess's scene.

I was less persuaded by the atmosphere of the piece - Malfi has always screamed dark and claustrophobic to me, and the airy setting made the plotting feel more public than I would ideally have liked (although a nice moment after the severed hand coup saw Ferdinand peeping out from the windows of the Tudor house). However, Steve Quick's Bosola made great use of the visibility of the audience, addressing his schemes to the assembled crowd and managing his unsuspecting victims. I appreciated the comic and militaristic feel of the character, as if Sir Toby or Parolles had discovered how to take over a play. This Bosola, towering over many of the other actors, was more physically imposing than might be expected, drawing attention to him from the start as the character to watch. Yet what marked this production was the evenness of its ensemble - if not drawn to Matt Kubus's almost fantastical Ferdinand, with plumed hat, we were conspiring with Antonio and Gareth Bernard's Delio or back once more with Bosola's compelling choric motions.

From the recording I found it hard to gauge tone and emphasis, so it was difficult to discern an overriding vision for the play. Anomalies in the text such as Delio's isolated encounter with Julia and the early ramblings of Castruccio were retained, keeping a reasonably full text rather than (as sometimes happens) focusing entirely on the primary plot. Yet what did begin to emerge was a sense of the very human relationships destroyed by events. This was particularly obvious in a moving parting scene between the Duchess and Antonio, which saw a tender but hopeless farewell followed immediately by the Duchess spitting defiance at the ever-swaggering Bosola.

As the play moved into the final two acts and the sun began setting, the tone shifted noticably from the domestic to the grotesque, as Ferdinand danced with the severed hand and the madmen pranced manically about the stage. An increasingly weary-looking Bosola stood in contrast to the hysterics as the deaths began mounting up, once more establishing him as the play's centre of gravity. Yet inevitably, it was in the littering of bodies at the play's bloody conclusion that the production finally satisfied, its characters convincingly bound up in events that they could rail at but ultimately not avoid.

A video is no substitute for the real thing, but it was a pleasure to finally see a version of the play and get a sense of Blood & Thunder's work. Keep an eye out for them surfacing in or near Stratford next summer, with any luck!

December 31, 2011

2011 round up

It's been a transitional year for The Bardathon. In August, I submitted my PhD at the University of Warwick (our kind host here), and two weeks later I began a new job at the University of Nottingham. These two changes have impacted significantly on my ability to get to the theatre this year, which means that unfortunately I've been able to review much less than usual. Added to this, the year's major Shakespeare has been dominated by big, very expensive West End productions which were prohibitively priced for this humble student. So, apologies to regular readers that it's been a leaner year than usual. However, there was still plenty of quality on show, and this year happily took in not just the usual Shakespeare but several rarely played pieces, as well as plays by Marlowe, Middleton, Chapman, Field, Fletcher, Massinger, Rowley, Heywood and Marston, and several pieces of new writing.


January saw me attend Discords, a devised piece by Fail Better featuring University of Warwick students. While a little abstract for my tastes, it played fascinatingly with the sounds of key Shakespeare scenes and offered some striking images.


A busy month this, and rich enough for an entire year. First to London, for yet another Double Falsehood. This one was fast and entertaining, with strong directorial intervention making theatrical capital of Theobald's text. I have a review of this production coming out in a book in 2012. Twice to the cinema, for the thoroughly entertaining Gnomeo and Juliet and for a live broadcast of the Donmar's King Lear. The two couldn't have been more different, but both worked tremendously: Gnomeo was colourful, funny, and had a postmodern twist in its tale that saw a character confront Shakespeare (in statue form) directly to change his own fate. Derek Jacobi, meanwhile, did wonders as Lear, while Michael Grandage directed an intimate and heartwrenching production that even survived the temporary breakdown of the satellite transmission. In the live theatre, Propeller offered an unusual double-bill. The Comedy of Errors was the highlight, anarchic and energetic without sacrificing a syllable of the verbal wordplay. The foyer entertainment was even better than the show. Richard III, meanwhile, drew on grand guignol for a production that cast Richard as one cog in a relentless butchering machine, and in which the true terror was a gloved butler with a pocket watch. More straightforward, but no less rivetting, was the always wonderful John Heffernan as Richard II in Andrew Hilton's production. The key was the ceremony and the calm delight Richard took in his own authority. And there was the first in a double-bill of student-written two-handers at Warwick, To Will, appropriate in a year obsessed with Shakespearean biography.


Another rich month, this time with adaptations and student theatre. The Shakespeare Institute Players presented King John in a fluid and surprisingly funny production, and Warwick University Drama Society offered a courageous but badly flawed experiment by presenting Antony and Cleopatra as a playground skit. At King Edward VI school in Stratford-upon-Avon, meanwhile, Perry Mills's boys presented John Marston's Antonio's Revenge, an attempt to move beyond comedy that did the boys full credit, but was less entertaining than previous outings. At Warwick Arts Centre, the Company Theatre of Mumbai brought the extraordinary Hamlet, The Clown Prince, for which I can only direct you to my full review. The year's finest piece of theatre, however, was Cheek by Jowl's phenomenal return to form with the Russian ensemble performing The Tempest. Original in its reading of characters (especially Miranda), provocative in the collapse of the entire theatrical artifice and visually stunning in its various images, this was my highlight of 2011. At the RSC, the Little Angel Theatre presented a fun but very conservative alternative with its own Tempest, and I returned to Bristol to see the Richard II company assay The Comedy of Errors in a much slower version than Propeller's, but one effective in its relative restraint and gesture towards comedy of manners.


April saw the beginnings of a comedown after two wonderful months of theatregoing. Many of my peers loved it, but I disliked Bond, a Chinese operatic version of The Merchant of Venice. Perhaps it was the jetlag on my second night in the US, but while the performances were phenomenal, the conventions of the form left me bored. I enjoyed the other "event" piece of the month, though: Camille O'Sullivan's audacious reading/singing of The Rape of Lucrece. A cinematic disappointment was served up in Julie Taymor's The Tempest. Despite the trumpeting surrounding the casting of Helen Mirren as Prospera, this was a deeply conservative version of the play, tedious to watch on screen, and even the CGI was poorly done. At the RSC, Michael Boyd's Macbeth was another disappointment, despite a stunning set. Gimmicks couldn't mask the weak performances and a generally flat evening. However, Gregory Doran's Cardenio was a triumph. While I had some fundamental issues with the production, particularly its treatment of the rape scene, Doran and his team of actors made fine work of turning it into an enjoyable entertainment, with plenty of fireworks (literal and metaphorical) and some wonderful acting.


A second visit to Cardenio qualified some of my thoughts about that production, but this was a month of rarities and new experiences. In London, I caught a rare outing for 1 Henry VI, which used the whole space of the Rose Theatre to tremendous visual effect, but suffered from messy editing and a lack of attention to acting standards. An entertaining version of the first quarto of Hamlet was performed at the White Bear Theatre Pub, which would have been even better had the production fully committed to the concept rather than also trying to crowbar in the characterisation offered by the more familiar texts and stage history. I took part in a staged reading of Field and Fletcher's The Honest Man's Fortune in Canterbury, and the Institute Players presented Chapman's The Memorable Masque in Stratford. Both events offered fun insights into pieces almost never staged. An odd, cabaret-style evening of snippets was offered at the Globe, but of far more interest was a rare outing for All's Well that Ends Well. John Dove wasn't afraid to allow the play to be funny, and there was a great deal of heart even in Bertram and Helena's relationship. The month peaked, however, with two stunning productions at the RSC. Jo Stone-Fewings headed a tremendous cast in Massinger's The City Madam, combining humour with genuine malice. The cast seemed to thoroughly enjoy the Caroline camp, and the play offered a surprisingly prescient message for these troubled times. Better, though, was Rupert Goold's marmite The Merchant of Venice. This split audiences, but I wept at Susannah Fielding's fragile, conflicted, difficult reading of Portia.


Just two plays this month: the sequel to To Will at Warwick, With Will, imagined a conversation between Shakespeare and Middleton, continuing this year's trend for imaginative biography. At the RSC, the National Theatre of Scotland revived David Grieg's Dunsinane, a provocative piece of new writing set after Macbeth that drew uneasy parallels with the coalition presence in Iraq. How does an occupying army consolidate its position in a culture it fundamentally does not understand?


The best I could say about a student production in Prague of The Winter's Tale was that the cast had done extraordinarily to learn a practically full text in a second language; but as a performance, it wasn't great. The biography strand continued with Jonathan Bate's play Being Shakespeare. Simon Callow owned the stage, but I have to say that Jonathan's book Soul of the Age did the job of the play far more satisfactorily. A spectacular Doctor Faustus at the Globe offered some great images, but dragged a bit in delivery. Finally, I expressed a certain amount of anger about Aporia Theatre's presentation of Cardenio in Stratford - not just because it's not that play at all, but also because it denies Thomas Middleton public credit for his wonderful Second Maiden's Tragedy. The production did a good job, apart from a crass ending. Not the finest month.


The Bardathon went medieval this month, with the Globe's fantastic Mysteries and an evocative student production of Everyman in Stratford. I also got the chance to finally cross off two big items on the to-do list: my first full production of The Two Noble Kinsmen (rather dull), and my first English-language Titus Andronicus, which also happened to be my first experience of the Edinburgh Fringe (predictably "edgy"). On a larger scale, Nancy Meckler delivered the biannual Midsummer Night's Dream for the RSC in a production which I found rather uninventive, but was widely loved. I was fascinated, however, by my first Heywood play - Katie Mitchell's A Woman Killed with Kindness at the National. The split set and Ibsenite trappings were intriguing, but too much was lost in the translation to a faux 19th-century melodrama, not least the complexities of the relationship between Anne and Frankford.


Just two indifferent productions this month. The Tempest at Middle Temple Hall boasted a beautiful setting and a simple beauty, but no real interpretation of the play. Othello at Sheffield Crucible, meanwhile, boasted two wonderful actors in Clarke Peters and Dominic West, but the production itself was slow, unimaginative and entirely straightforward. By now in my new job, I found myself craving some Shakespeare that took on the text in a far more interesting way.


Just two productions again, but far better. In Stratford, a new company called Ketterer's Men put on Hamlet in tribute to their (and my) late friend Lizz Ketterer, who passed away far too young earlier this year. Cripplingly long, the players nonetheless offered an intimate and textually astute version of the play that reminded me that Hamlet can still be entertaining in and of itself, rather than in gimmicky or heavily cut versions. In Manchester, meanwhile, I was pleased to catch an intelligent updating of Edward II that borrowed the aesthetic of Elizabeth II's coronation and turned the relationship between Lightborn and Edward into something compelling and dark.


The year in Shakespeare Studies was unfortunately dominated by the Authorship Controversy, and in November I finally got to see Anonymous, the film which had become a rallying point for the naysayers. I actually enjoyed it, despite its many flaws - and the idea it posed any threat to serious scholarship is laughable. I finally experience Nottingham student theatre with a modern update of Macbeth, and returned to Stratford once more to see the Institute Players perform The Changeling in an unfortunately cut but still interesting version. Yet another riff on Cardenio was offered at the Globe, this time in the form of a rehearsed reading of Gary Taylor's reconstruction, which boldly created a Don Quixote mainplot which was a resounding success, even if I didn't particularly like the play's ending. My continuing exploration of theatres local to Nottingham met with disappointment at Lakeside Arts Centre with Mappa Mundi's rather lame version of Much Ado about Nothing (particularly disappointing in a year when I apparently missed two very good productions at the Globe and the Wyndham's Theatre). However, the always-reliable Filter provided a rousing climax to a mixed year with a raucous, irreverent and outstanding Dream that took audience interaction to a new level, particularly in an uncomfortable but undeniably fun foodfight.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

That's it for 2011. I don't know yet what 2012 is going to bring, apart from looking forward to Propeller's upcoming Henry V and Winter's Tale, Cheek by Jowl's take on John Ford's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, Headlong Theatre's Romeo and Juliet and the RSC's promising versions of The Taming of the Shrew and Measure for Measure. It'll be a good year for Shakespeare on screen too, with Ralph Fiennes's Coriolanus, the BBC's new versions of the second tetralogy of history plays and a live screening of the National's Comedy of Errors.

I also don't know yet where the blog's going to go this year. As my Warwick accounts expire, I may take advantage of the opportunity to migrate to a new platform. In the meantime, thank you for reading, and I hope to see you here in the new year. Happy holidays!

November 27, 2011

Macbeth @ The New Theatre, Nottingham

Just a quick note, for completeness' sake, to say that I made it to the Nottingham New Theatre's production of Macbeth last week. I don't review shows that feature students who I do or will teach, but great to see the country's only completely student-run theatre in action, and an interesting idea to set it in an office environment. I'm only disappointed that Birnam Wood didn't turn out to be a tent city of student protesters.....

June 28, 2011

With Will (Warwick Student Arts Festival) @ Warwick Arts Centre Studio

I've only managed to catch one show at this year's Warwick Student Arts Festival - With Will, a half-hour duologue. I don't know the names of writer, director or actors, but I can only assume it comes from the same mind that created the very similar To Will, which I caught earlier this year.

The play, set around 1610, saw Thomas Middleton seeking out Shakespeare to ask if he could rewrite Macbeth to make it "better". The two chatted about life, plays, other writers etc., before "Will" finally agreed to let "Tom" rewrite the play - as long as he also had a crack at Measure for Measure.

The play had the exact same strengths and weaknesses as To Will. On the plus side, the performances were fine. The two female actors were witty and confident. Tom was presented as the younger, nervier partner, pacing the stage and nervously voicing criticisms and asking naive questions. Will, playing to the romantic genius notion of the Bard, was dramatic, rather smug but generous towards his fellow. The writing itself was also fit to purpose, mixing historical anecdote with a personal edge.

The problems were primarily structural. As with To Will, the writer had chosen to collate an extraordinary number of biographical and historical anecdotes (the unholy child of James Shapiro and Andrew Gurr, if that thought doesn't chill you) rather than create an actual narrative. The best parts of the play touched on religion, as the vehemently anti-Catholic Tom challenged Will on his own beliefs; but the play didn't have the courage to explore fiction, instead only gesturing at imaginative biography before make sharp left turns to talk about a completely different anecodote. The play covered everything from Shakespeare ranting about Kempe, to detailed analysis of Lear, to Shakespeare setting up the Globe, to why Burbage didn't play Mercutio, to the political analogies of A Game at Chess. The grab-bag of information was fascinating, but in a pedagogic, final-year-practical-dissertation kind of way, rather than as a piece of theatre: the aim seemed to be to demonstrate the writer's familiarity with as much early modern theatre history as possible, but really wanted a bit of careful selection to create a coherent throughline.

As a knowledge-display, it could have been much tighter too. If doing a biographical piece, why not pay attention to chronology? The idea of Middleton grilling Shakespeare on why his worldview was so bleak while writing Lear, for example, screams out for the play to acknowledge that the two men were also collaborating on Timon at probably almost exactly the same time; the generation gap between Middleton and Shakespeare could have opened up so many possibilities; and the range of plays discussed occasionally beggared belief - if Game at Chess was not premiered until eight years after Shakespeare's death, for example, why were we discussing it alongside Shakespeare's "recent" Coriolanus? Within the context of a dramatic fiction, of course, none of these are problems; this is just an observation that the strengths of the writing were diluted by the over-anxious need to cram in as much as possible.

However, With Will persuaded me of the potential of this kind of drama. Putting the two writers onstage to discuss their plays worked tremendously as a way into the unpacking of the themes and contexts that informed the writing. Of course it panders to author-centred ideas of writing - the idea of Middleton taking Yorkshire Tragedy to a publisher in order to earn a bit of cash not only offers to send book historians weeping to an early grave, but is also symptomatic of the biographical concern to explain all phenomena with reference to the over-arching, privileged agency of an author. It's a useful set of questions to raise ahead of seeing Being Shakespeare in a couple of weeks. On its own, this production offered a great introduction to some of the better and lesser-known aspects of early modern theatrical history, and undoubtedly served as a wonderfully apt end-of-year send off to a group of Shakespearean undergrads due to get their exam results back tomorrow. Good luck!

June 19, 2011

Much Ado @ Wyndham's Theatre

I want to make clear - I have NOT seen Much Ado about Nothing at Wyndham's Theatre, starring Catherine Tate and David Tennant. Quite simply, I couldn't afford it.

I was also sceptical about what appeared to be a particularly cynical production aimed at the West End. The two most popular stars of the most popular light entertainment show on television, reunited for a one-off special? My cynicism was reduced when I heard that the ever-wonderful Josie Rourke was directing; and I do believe that Tate and Tennant genuinely wanted to work together - there does seem to be something more than pound signs in a producer's eyes behind this production.

The reason I'm posting now is that I've been fascinated by the responses, which seem to run a clear divide between academic and popular. The critiques I've heard from some of my most trusted theatregoing contacts and academics have been resoundingly negative - Tate is awful, the rest of the production is half-baked, it lacks imagination etc. The responses (primarily on Facebook) from my non-specialist friends, however, say that it's wonderful - Tate and Tennant sparkle, the production looks fantastic, it's laugh-out-loud funny.

So, my two questions: 1) What did people who've seen it think of it? and 2) what do we think about this kind of production? Is the fact that it's working for new audiences, even if there may be suspicion of people being blinded by celebrity, enough? Do we as academics need to take that into account as part of our critique? If we're the only person still sitting while everyone else gives a standing ovation, is everyone else wrong, or is there something we should be learning from them about pure enjoyment? Or does our critical objectivity matter more than a mass response?

May 29, 2011

The Memorable Masque @ The Shakespeare Institute

The annual British Graduate Shakespeare Conference pleasingly put performance at the centre of this year's plenary events. As well as a taster by the Institute's performance research group for their upcoming Macbeth, we were treated to a staged reading of George Chapman's The Memorable Masque of the Middle Temple and Lincoln's Inn, first performed to celebrate the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Count Frederick V in 1613, and now restaged under the direction of Jacqueline MacDonald.

A cast of Institute staff and students (including Stanley Wells as "George Chapman" reading out the authorial stage directions) walked through the elaborate masque, whose visual elements were represented by overhead projections and whose music was provided live by Cecilia Kendall-White. The aim was to give a flavour of the formality and shapes of the masque, directed towards two thrones at one end of the Shakespeare Institute Hall.

The performance included two fully-staged formal dances, one with torches and one between four couples, which were pleasingly complex and stately, the company having taken the time to give them their full prominence. More obviously entertaining, however, were Andrew Hippel, Gareth Bernard, Jason Burg and Richard Nunn who entered as baboons, picking fleas off audience members and dancing crazily in the centre of the space. As Kendall-White played, however, the baboons became entranced by her music (I couldn't help but think of 2001!) and gradually fell into co-ordinated swaying, before she led them off the stage.

The main story of the masque hinged around the eventual marriage of Plutus (Riches) and Honour, played by José Alberto Pérez Díez and Yolana Wassersug. Díez owned the stage, walking confidently about and raising his eyebrows at the audience at some of the more outlandish moments. The first half of the masque saw him bantering with Martin Wiggins as the bellows-wearing Capriccio, whose arm first emerged from a side area of the hall, pushing aside a door standing for the split rock of the text. Capriccio was a lively presence, competing with Plutus for prominence on a raised platform.

The arrival of Helen Osborne's Eunomia announced the beginning of the more formal masque, followed by Honour herself and Phemis (Kelley Costigan). The three women processed in in stately fashion, and their dialogue with Plutus was interspersed with the formal dancing. Costigan spoke the several songs, and the company finally assembled for bows before the thrones before leaving in procession.

Masques aren't particularly my favourite form of entertainment, and in some ways a rehearsed reading ill-serves a medium which is so dependent on visual display. However, it was surprisingly fascinated to see a staged version. The Memorable Masque is surprisingly simple at its core, and the company did a great job of exposing the skeleton of a piece rooted in the movement of bodies in very formal patterns. I was particularly impressed with the dancing, but it was also a pleasure simply to see in three dimensions a piece of theatre so much more co-ordinated and determined than the usual plays. I was sorry not to be able to stay for the post-show discussion, but I'm very much hoping this practice-as-research project continues to develop.

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Peter Kirwan is Teaching Associate in Shakespeare and Early Modern Drama at the University of Nottingham and a reviewer of Shakespearean theatre for several academic journals.

The Bardathon is his experimental review blog, covering productions of (or based on) all early modern plays. The aim is to combine immediate reactions with the detail and analysis of the academic review.

Theatre criticism always needs more voices. Please comment with your own views and contributions!

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