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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.

May 09, 2011

The Honest Man's Fortune @ Canterbury Christ Church University

I've remarked before now on a show I've been involved in behind the scenes, but never before on something in which I've acted. I use "acting" in the loosest possible sense, and the less said about my board-treading the better, but it was a pleasure this weekend to be involved in a staged reading of The Honest Man's Fortune in Canterbury as part of a Renaissance colloquium organised by Steve Orman.

The play, by Field and Fletcher (and Massinger?), is a fun citizen comedy from 1613, that begins with the ruination of the titular honest man, Montaigne, and traces his fall at the hands of creditors, his reduction to servitude in the house of a virtuous lady (Lamira) and his restoration to riches as the eventual chosen husband of the lady. Alongside this, Montaigne's persecutor - the jealous Lord Orleans - turfs out his wife over suspicion of an ongoing affair with Montaigne and falls out with his brother-in-law, Amiens. The two are eventually reconciled with each other and with their defamed wife/sister following a duel plot partially stage-managed by Montaigne's loyal supporters, Longaville and Dubois. Three comic malefactors partially responsible for Montaigne's fall (Laverdure, La Poope and Mallicorne) present themselves as suitors to Lamira and are rebuffed by Montaigne; and Montaigne's loyal page Veramour is pursued by Laverdure, convinced that the boy is actually a woman. It is only revealed at the end, amid a flurry of winking to other plays, that Veramour is in fact the boy he always appeared to be.

The play is a surprisingly tight mixture of elements familiar from texts as diverse as Philaster, A New Way to Pay Old Debts, The Taming of the Shrew, Timon of Athens and even The Odyssey in its greedy suitors. In performance, despite very little rehearsal, it proved to be surprisingly stageable and entertaining. While it was obviously impossible for me to watch it properly while performing in it, I'll just make a few observations here.

In Brian McMahon's hands, Montaigne was a pleasingly complex combination of wistful persecuted hero and vocal righter of wrongs. "Honest" appeared to be key, rather than "good" - his test of Lady Orlean's virtue was initially extremely creepy and lecherous; his readiness to draw against Amiens and the officers showed him proactive; and he took no small pleasure in his final passing of judgement against the dishonourable suitors. This made him far more interesting than the stoic sufferer I'd initially expected, and a much more compelling protagonist.

The play fell rather conveniently into two halves, the first dealing primarily with Montaigne's fall at the hands of creditors, lawyers etc. and the second moving into a much more domestic sphere in and around Lamira's house. Longaville (Orman) and Dubois (myself) are quite prominent in the first half and much less so in the second, Dubois in particular being practically forgotten about by the text. The text appears to set up a great deal with the two, particularly their agreement to feign loyalty to the great lords (which provided great scope for a lot of shouting, bravado and flailing of imaginary swords), which then unwinds in one key scene as the Lady Orleans is apparently shot. This isn't just a note on the amount I had to do (!) but speaks interestingly to the change in tone and focus, with male friendships and public relationships replaced by a greater concern for heterosexual union in the second half. The unifying factor in this was Kelley Costigan's melancholic Veramour, always positioned to the side of the stage in the first half declaring his devotion for his master; but moving to more central roles in the second half as his gender came into question. The page dominated the final act too, Costigan bringing out the playfulness of Veramour when posing as a girl, before revealing his true gender.

The comic characters were surprisingly effective. Martin Wiggins brilliantly stepped in at short notice to play Charlotte and La Poope. The former began by playing on the type of the lecherous maid-servant, flirting shamelessly with the humbled Montaigne and providing a clearly undesirable contrast to the higher-class ladies; but later Wiggins brought out the sweetness of Charlotte's loyalty, culminating in the revelation that she had only been wooing Montaigne on behalf of her mistress. As La Poope, meanwhile, he was a gruff and blustering sailor whose disregard for social niceties made him a constantly entertaining presence. Nicola Boyle contrasted ideally as the courtier Laverdure, whose character was defined primarily by the amusing banter with Veramour during their flirtation and the shared cowardice with La Poope, the two cowering in doorways rather than joining in battles. I also particularly enjoyed the contrast between the two men in the final moments, as La Poope took Laverdure's place and embraced Veramour as a potential new cabin boy. I took on Mallicorne at the last minute and didn't really do the role justice - he begins as a fairly unambiguously treacherous character, tricking Montaigne's money away from him and then smugly revealing he has arranged for his arrest. Then, however, he tags along with the comic duo of Laverdue and La Poope, but I struggled to work out how he integrates with their already-established dynamic.

Alex Samson was the villain of the piece as the jealous Orleans, giving the role the forcefulness necessary to drive the action of the first half - he unseats Montaigne, drives away his wife and Amiens, encourages the conflicts between Longaville and Dubois and, finally, maintains the negative energy that leads up to the climactic staged assassination of Lady Orleans. He is only accorded a relatively quick penance, but Samson stuck to the principle that the character is essentially noble, which allowed his about-face to carry conviction and a consistency in the vehemence with which he repented. He was contrasted throughout (in a play full of doubles, these contrasts abounded) with Astrid Stilma's Amiens. Stilma brought a complexity to the role similar to that accorded to Montaigne - essentially virtuous, but with a temper and aggression that argued for virtue as an active and combative quality rather than a passive state. Much of the post-show discussion focussed on Amiens, who is interestingly established as an honest man at the play's opening and remains throughout a potential mate for Lamira, but who is ultimately left disappointed at the play's conclusion, despite his pleasure in Lamira's choice of Montaigne. I particularly liked Stilma's sense of sadness as she deferred to Montaigne at this final point.

Finally, the two women stood as types of female virtue, but once more interestingly contrasted. Jackie Watson (I hope I've spelled that correctly) played Lady Orleans as patient victim, pushed away by her husband but remaining loyal, and acting throughout as a voice of conscience. Claire Bartram's Lamira, meanwhile, was interestingly independent of male attachments, aloof with the suitors and tender of her servants. She held court throughout and, in some respects, took the Ducal role of the guarantor of order and restitution. It was an interestingly powerful role for a woman, despite the voiced objectification of her by the suitors, and it was fascinating to see her preside over the final scene and put Montaigne through the performance of espousing virtue and condemnation, in a gender-reversal of the conclusion of Shrew.

So, a fun event, even if I can't review it properly! It's a fascinating play, and generated some interesting post-show discussion. Hopefully the publication of a new edition in the Malone Society reprints this year will encourage further production, and with the re-opening of the Swan, it'd be wonderful if the RSC could explore it at a professional level in the near future.

December 08, 2010

Too Many Danes

How many Hamlets can we sit through?

In many ways, we're still in the shadow of the RSC and Donmar "celebrity" productions, more recently joined by the National's major stab. It's one of the big institutional shows, and it's had a good run round the main theatres over the last year and a bit.

But then there are the myriad smaller versions I've caught: the RSC Young Person's version, Tom Cornford's reconstruction, the Zimbabwean Kupenga Kwa Hamlet, the National's Prince of Denmark.

You'd think this might mean Hamlet was being exhausted for the time being, but oh no. First up is Northern Broadsides on tour; then the Factory Hamlet is returning to the Rose Kingston. The Young Vic is mounting its version with Michael Sheen, and the RSC YP version is still doing the rounds. And finally, Shakespeare's Globe are doing a touring version.

A serious question arises. However good Hamlet is, does it really warrant this level of public saturation? I love the play, but I do find productions of it (with notable exceptions, such as Two Gents) rather too similar to one another to justify the continuous repetition. It's partly to do with the cultural baggage that Hamlet drags along with it: directors are happy to put slightly different glosses and tones on it, but the essential production remains the same in a way that, say, the similarly huge number of Macbeths avoids through breathtaking variety.

Here's a plea to the directors of all the forthcoming shows (and I know the Factory one will at least manage this): PLEASE temper your reverence to the text with an awareness that we are spoiled for Hamlets. Play with it!

November 26, 2010

For the Christmas wishlist

Courtesy of the National Theatre bookshop. You too can pretend you're part of Team Hamlet at The Mousetrap:

Hamlet villain t-shirt

Hamlet 'Villain' T-shirt


June 27, 2010

Double Falsehood (Warwick Shakespeare Society) @ Warwick Arts Centre

Today was the Warwick Shakespeare Society's rehearsed reading of Double Falsehood, which I've been involved in as a sort of dramaturg. I've already covered the rehearsal process in detail here, here and here, so this is just a quick note on the final performance, which I was finally able to sit down and enjoy.

I gave a very quick introduction to the historical context of the play and the debates over whether or not it does preserve something of the original, and to what we were doing today (to wit: a reading-plus rather than a production-minus). Not sure that the format was to everyone's taste - one couple left after two minutes, presumably having expected a full bells-and-whistles version, but no matter.

The cast did a fantastic job, really bringing the play to life. I'd been interested to see how coherent the action was, and while I obviously have something of an advantage in knowing the plot, I was pleased to find it very straightforward, helped by the linearity of the structure.

Special mention to Nick Collins and Emma Taylor, who turned Don Bernard and Leonora into a brilliant comedy act, the daughter teasing her father constantly while the father blundered on blindly. The comedy dynamic between Don Bernard and Lawrence Gibson's Camillo was also brought out extremely nicely, with Gibson getting most of the biggest laughs. I was also particularly impressed with Lily Walker's Epilogue, which struck a fascinatingly edgy tone between making fun of the frozen cast, and critiquing the laughter of the audience.

The problems of cross-dressing and disguises were largely overcome. We realised that our blocking didn't allow Jo Foakes enough time to change back into her female clothes during the final scene, but she carried off the transition with simple changes in posture, which the dialogue in any case made abundantly clear. The final scene in general worked extremely well, although it left the small stage rather cluttered; and Julio's unrecognised presence was rendered by simply having him turned away and hiding his face from Leonora.

The change in tone moving to Act 4 is really significant, and if we'd had time it would have been great to insert an interval. As it was, the comedy of the shepherds and Julio's madness (which is amusing on some levels, although heartbreaking on others, and Tom Hutchinson did a great job with this) followed on very abruptly from the previous scene, but if nothing else this only made the transition all the clearer. The before-and-after of Henriquez's rape of Violante, however, was very sudden. In the original text, there's an act break between the two, which would presumably help with showing the passage of time; as it was, Simon Neill's shift from anticipation to conscience-wrestling did the work instead.

There were plenty of other really nice touches. Tim Kaufmann's Master of the Flocks was entertainingly lecherous, rubbing his thighs and getting extremely hot and bothered at Violante's "innuendo" - Brean Hammond may not recognise it as such, but this performance convinced me that this scene is extremely bawdy. A few of the smaller roles felt undeveloped - it's a shame, for example, that Fabian and Lopez appear and disappear so quickly, which doesn't help the sense much - but I found the doubling of Ronnie Bassett and Sam Jefferyes as the Shepherds and Gentlemen gave a much more structured arc to the fourth act, the two spending enough time with Julio to allow a relationship to build up on stage.

Several of the more stagey devices were dropped in practice, such as Violante's "dropping" of her letter which was then to be picked up by Henriquez on his subsequent entrance; and Leonora's faint at the wedding was staged much more simply. For this scene, the rest of the cast all stood up, making the scene far more public, which looked nice. We also retained the long walk of Josh Cockcroft's Citizen between his receiving the letter from Leonora and his delivery of it to Julio, which linked those scenes together extremely effectively.

Finally, the dynamics between the major male characters were extremely interesting. There's a displacement of authority in the very first scene which established Sam Sturrock's Roderick as the proxy of power and the agent of intervention throughout the play, and the movements of Roderick, Henriquez and Julio towards their final unity really drove the play. I'd love, if I had the chance to be involved in a more substantial production one day, to explore these male friendships in action, because these bonds strongly frame the action. What this reading did, though, was bring out the importance of Roderick in effecting the various solutions to the play's problems, and the final patterned union worked neatly.

I'm really pleased to have had the chance, at long last, to be involved in a performance-based experiment, and I'm extremely impressed with how quickly the cast and director Sophie Gilpin pulled together a fluent, clear and thoroughly interesting reading. It'd be great to see more small-scale projects like this at Warwick, though I understand that time and money inevitably favour a few dedicated big productions over the smaller events. I got a great deal out of it though, and I hope the audience did too.

February 01, 2010

Hamlet at Elsinore

There's so much early modern drama going on in the next few months that I'm having to be pretty ruthless with myself about what I'm allowing myself to go to. I'll be focussing on personal favourites, locals and rare plays: so, plenty of room for the National's Women Beware Women, the RSC's Lear, the Globe's Henry VIII and the Tiny Ninja Romeo and Juliet. I'm less sure at the moment which plays will be the casualties, though it's particularly unlikely that I'll make it to Bristol for either of the Tobacco Factory's shows, or the Bristol Old Vic's take on Romeo. Even big productions like the Peter Hall Dream may have to take a back seat, unless I start renting in London as well as Kenilworth.

The biggest omission, however, is undoubtedly Hamlet at Elsinore, a performance-cum-conference at Elsinore Castle in Denmark. With players from Cambridge University performing the play on the battlements and in the castle's core rooms during the nights, it sounds like it'll be a spectacular and memorable event. It's currently only open for priority booking by members of the British Shakespeare Association, but I'll try to post a link up here once public public has opened. I'll be fascinated to hear thoughts from anyone who makes it!

December 20, 2009

Review of the Year

Rather than do a 'Top Ten' this year, I thought I'd be less reductive and do a month-by-month breakdown of my year's early modern theatre-going. It's been an interesting year, with some real ups and downs and productions which I still feel conflicted about. Still, here goes!


Propeller's The Merchant of Venice at Liverpool Playhouse started the year on a fantastic note. Elaborate re-settings can be either curse or blessing on a production, but here the relocation to an all-male prison which turned the play into a story of masculine power struggles, illicit bribes and sexual cruelty worked wonderfully well.


Production of the month was the Tobacco Factory's Julius Caesar, which used its intimate space to turn the play into one of subterfuge, shadow-games and boardroom politics. The Donmar's Twelfth Night was a classic production in the worst sense: entirely obvious and with no real creative spark or interest for me, despite solid performances. Less dull was the Baxter Theatre/RSC The Tempest, a lively and colourful piece of theatre though still surprisingly conventional. More interesting were Propeller's A Midsummer Night's Dream, an utterly magical evening, and the RSC's touring Othello. With the focus too solidly on one (okay) central performance, the production remained unbalanced but with occasional flashes of imaginative brilliance.


My personal highlight in March was the chance to see the boys of King Edward VI School in Stratford perform two rarely-played pieces: Lyly's Endymion and Middleton's A Mad World, My Masters, both entertaining, hugely enlightening and a real pleasure. It was a good month for non-Shakespeare, with Marlowe's Dido, Queen of Carthage getting a long-overdue airing at the National. Solid, if a little dull, but strong central performances justified the production. WUDS took Much Ado about Nothingto the Belgrade, while the first As You Like It I've ever enjoyed allowed me to see Leicester's new Curve. With an immigration agenda, Dash Arts found beauty and intelligence in the play that created a thoroughly fascinating production. Finally, the Royal Exchange's no-holds-barred Macbeth forced its audience to confront a barrage of brutal imagery, to great effect.


Back to the Tobacco Factory for Antony and Cleopatra, a fine and well-performed reading of the play. When considered in conjunction with February's Julius Caesar, though, the two productions became parts one and two of a larger-scale piece that dramatically altered the focus of the story around Octavius and Antony. Northern Broadsides toured a high-profile Othello which was, in places, extremely good, and the CAPITAL Centre indulged in a bit of grave-robbing by resurrecting an early 20th century version of Hamlet.


Television brought us Compulsion, a reworking of The Changeling which was an interesting watch, and it was a good month for student theatre with an academic re-imagining of themes surrounding The Tempest and an enthralling 'Tis Pity She's a Whore at Warwick Arts Centre. The RSC's new season kicked off with a good Winter's Tale, design-heavy and with several strong performances,and a less good As You Like It which I found smug, artificial and not particularly funny, despite a stunning Oliver Martext. Both featured the new long-term ensemble, giving some sense of what to expect over the next three years. Shakespeare's Globe started their year with a surprisingly decent Romeo and Juliet: I didn't like the Juliet, but a strong Mercutio and some good fight scenes left me entertained.


WUDS continued an early-modern-heavy year with A Midsummer Night's Dream, a heavily-directed and physical piece, full of energy. The best production of the year was at the National, with All's Well that Ends Well re-imagined as a fairy tale. With stellar performances, intelligent chopping and, among other things, a Parolles that allowed the character sympathy as well as mockery, this was one I would have happily revisited several times. Shakespeare's Globe produced the best As You Like It I've ever seen: genuinely funny, moving and engaging. The Bridge Project's The Winter's Tale completed my London excursions with a play of two halves: a wonderful Leontes and compelling Sicily scenes matched by a pretty silly and not very lively second half, though still a great production overall. In Stratford, Julius Caesar didn't turn out as well, with an over-fussy design and too many ideas- though several of those were great.


Hamlet in the West End was the celebrity performance of the year, with Jude Law excelling in the title role, though weakly supported by a production that just didn't push itself, and featured the horrendous sight of understudies trooping on stage and standing in lines when court scenes needed extras. The RSC's Comedy of Errors, meanwhile, was their best of the year: I've never seen a cast appear to have such a good time, and I hope the kids on the school tour loved it.


Just one, in a quiet summer. Troilus and Cressida at Shakespeare's Globe was an overall triumph, with a couple of reservations. A strong ensemble company brought the play to life, and Laura Pyper's Cressida was, to my mind, one of the most important performances of the year.


was my month off!


I'm not quite sure how I managed to have such a quiet Autumn, but a chance to see All's Well that Ends Well on screen via the National's NT Live Project was welcome. It's still nowhere near as good as seeing it in the flesh, but this screening persuaded me that there is some merit to seeing the play up-close: subtleties, particularly in the character of Parolles, came across very well.


A children's version of The Tempest, designed with the hard-of-hearing in mind, made sign language a beautiful part of a physical performance. It's a difficult one to judge, but I found it entertaining enough. At the complete opposite end of the spectrum was Toneelgroep Amsterdam's marathon Roman Tragedies, grouping together Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra into a six-hour promenade performance in Dutch. A near-indescribable event, with invigorating performances, incisive commentary on the mediation of news and history, and a set-up that allowed me to eat, drink and check my e-mails while watching theatre, which is an approach I would heartily encourage as many theatres as possible to embrace. The RSC's Twelfth Night featured a ludicrously obscure setting (Byronic Albania?!) but was a hugely enjoyable night out, with good comic performances. It was slight, though, compared to the improved Days of Significance which toured the country. Still with plenty of intelligent things to say about both Much Ado about Nothing AND UK foreign policy, it remained as powerful a piece of theatre as when I first saw it two years ago.


Aside from Warwick's Shakespeare Society giving a low-key All's Well that Ends Well, there was only one production this month, but a good 'un. Two Gents Productions gave a township-influenced The Two Gentlemen of Verona; or, Vakomana Vaviri ve Zimbabwe which remade the play in its own image. Very, very funny, but ending on a dark note of pain and humiliation that resounded far more powerfully than any other image I've seen in the theatre this year. It's a great way to end 2009, and I can only hope that the coming months bring more moments like it.

September 17, 2009

Autumn shows

It's been a quiet summer, but as October approaches there are a range of Shakespeare shows coming up which I'm hoping to attend. Here's the current wishlist:

  • The NT Live broadcast of the National's All's Well that Ends Well, which I'll be seeing at Warwick Arts Centre.
  • Also at Warwick, Krazy Kat Theatre's children's show A Tempest. I've got a fondness for adaptations for kids, so looking forward to this one.
  • Coming to Coventry's Belgrade, the RSC's Days of Significance, which I haven't seen since its 2007 debut in the Swan.
  • The RSC's far more high-profile production of Twelfth Night at the Courtyard.
  • As promoted by Sonia Massai at this year's BSA conference, Two Gents Productions tour their Zimbabwean Two Gentlemen of Verona, which I'll probably catch in Oxford.
  • At the Barbican, the intimidating-sounding Roman Tragedies- Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra rolled into one, six hour production. In Dutch.
  • The Donmar's Life is a Dream, a play I've studied but never seen. Looks like availability may scupper me here though.
  • Then, thinking ahead to next year, there's A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Rose Theatre Kingston, and Measure for Measure at the Almeida, both opening in February. There's also a couple of bits of RSC new writing based on Shakespeare plays which I'd potentially like to see.

I'm probably not going to catch the Globe's revival of Love's Labour's Lost. It's a short run, and as it's the same space, the same director and a substantial number of the same cast as the original production, I don't think I can justify the time and expense (and they cancelled press night, so I lost my free ticket). I may also check out the local am-dram in my new locale of Kenilworth, who are putting on a version of Much Ado round the corner from me.

In a non-Shakespeare (and therefore non-review) line, I'm looking forward to the National's Mother Courage, the Belgrade's Beggar's Opera and the West End transfer of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Anything screamingly obvious I've missed? Or any hot tips?

September 14, 2009

Reviewing Shakespearian Theatre conference @ The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

I normally discuss academic conferences over on my PhD blog, but the unique theme of this particular conference – and its implications for my work – means it merits inclusion within the Bardathon’s remit. Seeing as it’s been very quiet here on the reviewing front (very few new openings in my area, and I’ve been moving house which has limited the free time in which I have to travel), it also seems an appropriate time to use the conference for a bit of self-reflection.

I was only able to attend the first day of this conference at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, so I missed the second day’s discussion of the RSC’s As You Like It. The first day, however, was of extreme use and interest. Keynote addresses from Michael Billington and Peter Holland bookended the event neatly with perspectives on reviewing from top journalistic and academic performance critics. In between, a panel discussion brought together a range of perspectives on reviewing: critic Michael Coveney, academic Carol Rutter, Guardian arts editor Andrew Dickson, director Tim Supple and actor Janet Suzman, with Stanley Wells chairing. Finally, a seminar session discussed the papers of twelve delegates, including my own.

Billington’s keynote was as interesting as on the other occasions I’ve heard him speak, giving an illuminating and acutely-observed history of changes in British theatre-making over the last few decades. As productions have moved from actor/actor-manager-led to a director’s theatre, reviewing has changed in response. While this is undoubtedly true, it leaves reviewing in a rather passive state, able only to respond rather than develop in its own directions. For this reason, I was a little disappointed, as I’d hoped the theme of the conference might provoke Billington to be a bit more self-reflective about his own craft. My sense of disappointment, though, was only a result of my own prior hopes for the content of his lecture; as it was, it provided an insightful contextual opening for the rest of the day’s discussion, while also opening up questions that would continue to concern participants for the rest of the day: how does the critic define what qualifies as “Shakespeare”? How is the role of the critic evolving in response to developments in blogging and online criticism? And what, ultimately, is the reviewer’s purpose?

While occasionally meandering a little into discussions of performance (as opposed to performance criticism), the panel session touched on extremely pertinent questions, some of which I’ll try to briefly summarise. Firstly, the question of who reviews are for. Suzman admitted that she wasn’t sure what she could usefully add to the discussion, as she herself never reads reviews. She seemed to believe this is the case with the majority of actors (though I am very aware that several actors do read reviews, including occasionally on this blog – perhaps it’s simply a matter of personal choice); however, this led to questions of the impact of reviews. How far can a bad notice affect a practitioner? And should practitioners ever read reviews? A key debate seems to be the matter of how far critics and practitioners may learn from each other, or whether the two should operate in relative independence. Reviews are, after all, surely aimed primarily at audiences, potential or past. This fed into Peter Holland’s later, insightful discussion of the operations of the blogosphere, which saw reviews interacting and circulating within a network of informed and interested parties: opinions are articulated for the benefit of others with their own opinions. He articulated the danger of this sphere becoming too self-contained, but then this is also a danger with the ‘traditional’ reviewing field. Ultimately, it is spectators who we should be writing for.

The blogosphere came in for a kicking in the panel discussion, which several other delegates were interested in my thoughts on. One panel member (I forget who) compared it to the “Britain’s Got Talent” mentality, in which everyone feels they can – and have a right to – express an opinion, regardless of any measure of quality. Concerns were raised over the threat that free opinion offers to the authority of established reviewers, and a challenge was raised. Where are the new reviewers going to come from? Tim Supple asked Michael Billington to name a promising young reviewer under the age of thirty, and remained unanswered.

The problem here is that experience is assumed as the prerequisite for good reviewing, which seemed to negate the possibility of there ever being a ‘good’ young reviewer. Good writing can be learned, experience can only be got over time. This is a completely fair argument, and it is through experience that professional reviewers will always be able to locate and articulate their authority. However, my riposte would be that there is room for a plurality of opinions, and that there are different kinds of experience. You don’t need to have seen fifty-seven Hamlets in order to experience and write about the power of a given production, and Holland provided some interesting examples of vox pop reviewing, praising the instinctive responses of the young respondents for their immediacy and freshness. If young people can learn the discipline of writing well and communicate their own responses in a form that means something to others, then surely the necessary experience will come in time. To be unable to name the promising young reviewers at this time is, I believe, no cause for concern.

Andy Dickson, fighting valiantly on the panel for the positives of e-reviewing, was in any case able to name some promising young reviewers and blogs. His inclusion on the panel was a blessing, as it prevented the discussion from becoming too bogged down in negativity towards new forms of reviewing. As I remarked when asked for my opinion at various times during the day, the truth is that blogging, amateur criticism and e-reviewing is the future. It’s how people of my generation and younger find value in their interests, by being able to communicate them to international audiences of like-minded people, and all fields of criticism are moving that way. To try to resist this is futile; we need to be discussing how these forms can be usefully integrated with more traditional forms, not if. Dickson, and people like him, are going to be the most important people in this change because they are thinking positively about how these forms of criticism are to be integrated into the existing formats; how mixed media and traditional criticism can work together rather than in opposition. The ‘threat’ is mostly one of perception; the internet presents all voices as more or less equal, because they can all be read easily and for free. If a way can be found to emphasise the strengths and experience of different kinds of review and reviewer, then there is no reason why these various forms cannot productively co-exist – and professional reviewers keep their jobs.

One last comment from the panel section, which I found extremely bizarre, was Tim Supple’s assertion that the good reviewer should completely ignore ‘atmosphere’ (as, for example, on press nights), focussing instead entirely on the performance as object. Billington articulated something similar in his complaint that he finds the Globe a “distracting” venue. I entirely disagree with these comments. Atmosphere cannot be ignored, and theatre cannot be reviewed from within an imaginary, hermetically-sealed bubble. Atmosphere is part of the reviewer’s experience: if one is sitting at a comedy, and the audience are sitting stonily-faced throughout every attempted joke, that is inevitably going to affect the reviewer’s perception, consciously or subconsciously. Theatre is not necessarily a contained event on the stage, but a dialogue between performance and audience, most visibly at venues like the Globe but to some extent wherever theatre happens. I strongly believe that good reviewers should be discussing their experience of the theatrical event. I don’t mean, of course, that the reviewer should be reporting gossip or irrelevancies, and of course these should be ignored; but if something is happening in the theatre, or between the audience and the play, that is affecting the performance, then I don’t see a problem with bringing it into the discussion.

The seminar session was interesting for me; as one of the participants, I had of course seen all the papers in advance. I’d be interested to know how useful it was for the auditors, of whom there were pleasingly quite a few, who only had brief synopses to go on. I won’t go through all twelve papers, but just mention a few of the useful points that came up.

Ellie Collins added to the pro-blogging lobby with a timely and pragmatic look at the pros and cons of e-reviewing, praising the plurality of approaches that the medium allows in what she defined as a “post-consensus society”. The problems are in the lack of navigability and closure; but this last can be interpreted as a strength if we allow for responses to productions to continue developing indefinitely. Reviews are what shape a production’s afterlife, and the idea that that afterlife ends with the “official” review is restrictive. The paper tied in extremely neatly with Holland’s subsequent address, leaving the conference’s attitude towards blogging on a more positive note.

Two papers argued for closer attention in reviewing to specific aspects of practice. Jami Rogers gave an exciting paper that pointed out the deficiencies in the ways reviewers discuss acting, attacking lazy epithets and evaluative comments that fail to address what an actor actually did in order to give the general impression that the reviewer remarks upon. This is something that will have a direct impact on my own reviewing; while I do try to give description of action rather than brush off performances in general terms, it’s not something I’ve given a great deal of conscious thought to, which I hope to now remedy. Kate Burnett, meanwhile, discussed theatre design, demanding recognition for the work of designers rather than ceding all credit to directorial vision.

Steve Purcell wrote the paper closest to my own heart, attacking reviewers for policing the boundaries of what is considered to be “Shakespeare”. Particularly picking up on Billington’s earlier criticism of Kneehigh’s Cymbeline (which he considered to be unShakespearean), he discussed the inappropriateness of accusations of infidelity when applied to plays that are a) inherently unstable even in textual form and b) do not accept textual fidelity as an artistic concern. It’s a paper that will hopefully have use for my own PhD, which of course discusses historical conceptions of what Shakespeare actually is.

Alison Stewart’s paper persuasively argued for subjectivity in the review (hear hear), pointing out that no reviewer can meet the needs of all potential future researchers. This contrasted nicely with Kevin Quarmby’s calls for objectivity, demanding that the reviewer act as a conduit for their readers. I think the two can work well together; a cool, descriptive eye that remains the reviewer’s own, individual approach appears to meet the criteria of the reviews I prefer to read.

Finally, the question of comparative criticism, which Caroline Latta argued for the importance of. This, of course, is where the experience of professional critics is particularly important and invaluable. It is also the standard mode of academic reviewers, positioning the play within its performance context and comparing performers and productions to their lineage. I agree with the importance of this, while at the same time noting that it’s not something I do myself very much. I suppose I feel to an extent that there’s a danger of getting too bound up in the past and the history of a production, thereby losing something of the immediacy of the present – for of course, for many of the audience, they will be unaware of or at least unfamiliar with much of the performance history being contrasted with the present event. I’m also conscious that there are many forms of comparative criticism. Hamlet does not exist in an isolated history of Hamlets, but in a history of other theatre productions, in the context of its own season, in the director’s own repertory, in the current political and cultural climate and so on. These are just thoughts, but don’t invalidate the importance and usefulness of comparisons. The issue was raised repeatedly over the course of the day, and is to my mind the grounds upon which paid, professional critics should be articulating their own authority and justifying their paycheques.

I haven’t mentioned my own paper, but I was pleased with its reception and Caroline’s extremely generous questions on it. The paper was entitled “”What’s Past is Prologue”: Negotiating the Authority of Tense in Reviewing Shakespeare”, and made the argument that reviews should always be written in the present tense, in order to better express the liveness of the moment of performance and the position of the reviewer; my contention is that the moment of truth in a review is the moment of writing, as opposed to the moment of viewing. The tense question was secondary, though, to the issues I wanted to raise about what we consider the object of review actually is; I argued for reviewing single performances rather than entire productions runs, essentially supporting Alison’s arguments for embracing subjectivity by locating the reviewer’s experience of a particular moment in time.

I’ll wrap up there, but I was extremely pleased with and excited by this conference. It’s given me a great deal of food for thought, which I’m going to try and build into my own reviewing practice. It’s also, hopefully, raised similar questions for other critics and academics which will have wider implications; and the publication of the conference proceedings will no doubt speed things along. On a more personal note, it’s one of the first conferences at which I’ve felt completely confident in my own ability to express opinions and argue issues, which is a good boost coming into the new academic year.

June 25, 2009

Curtain calls or credits? Phedre (NT Live) @ Warwick Arts Centre

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I caught the National's Phedre last night - or, at least, an aspect of it. For this was the launch of the National's NT Live Project, which saw a live performance screened simultaneously on over 200 screens around the world. I caught it at Warwick Arts Centre, which added a further level of interest as it was being screened in their main theatre rather than their cinema, further confusing the sense of what we were watching - live show or film, or both?

I'm not going to talk about the production, in keeping with my English-Renaissance-dramatists-only policy, but I want to talk about the event, the framing within which this performance took place.

Phedre publicity art
Phedre publicity art

Firstly, it was rather more successful technically than I had expected. A couple of sound glitches, the occasional quick re-focus of the camera and some awkward screen compositions aside, the live recording team did an extremely good job of catching the production. Zooms, close-ups and intelligent cutting kept the action of the frame moving quickly and created some interesting moments unavailable to the theatre-goer: for example, Aricia and Hippolytus failed to see Theseus enter as they kissed, and the close-up on them meant we shared their surprise as they suddenly broke away to see him standing there.

However, is this what we actually want from theatre? For a broadcast, there has to be creative use of camera angles, for a fixed-camera perspective is near-unwatchable (ask anyone who's used the archives). Some argue that that replicates the experience of watching from a fixed seat in the auditorium, but this isn't the case. The live space has a depth of field and focus that allows the audience member to move their head, look on different aspects of the space; translating that to two dimensions on a screen narrows and flattens the perspective, fixing the viewer in an unnatural and unhelpful way.

By removing the viewer's ability to choose what they watch, and to have the overarching view of the whole stage, the experience is necessarily narrowed. We are put in the hands of the camera operator and editor; our experience is channelled through an intermediary. We see what they want us to see. This is true of film; but, this being a live broadcast, the production was necessarily limited in its ability to present us with exactly what they wanted to see: mistakes, errors and unexpected movements meant that the editorial team were able to present us not with exactly what they wanted us to see, but with the best that they were able to.

This was shown quite clearly in a troubling interview with Nicholas Hytner screened before the broadcast. In the same breath he told us that the cameras would merely be observers, therefore allowing the experience for cinema viewers to be the same as for the live audience. At the same time, he told us that the cameras would be aiming to pick out those aspects which they expected an audience would be focussing on at any given point. This shows a breathtaking arrogance in the director, assuming that he is far enough aware of the audience's interest that the experience can be accordingly mediated for them. At its most basic, this ignores the fact that the audience watch multiple aspects of the production at the same time; and to narrow that field of view obscures much of what makes up the live audience member's experience. More problematically, it assumes that we want to watch the speaker rather than the on-stage reaction to the speaker's words. Too often during the performance, we were bound to watch whoever was speaking when what may have been more interesting would have been to track the reaction of the person being spoken to. Nicholas Hytner may not think that that's of interest; and perhaps it wasn't, but as an audience member I need to be able to make that choice for myself.

In this sense, then, the production was too narrowly focussed to be any reflection of the theatrical experience; but not controlled enough to take advantage of the directorial control that film allows. What we were left with was something in between, which gave a sense of the production but nothing more.

There were other issues, most problematically one of social divide and mediation. The screening was prefaced with over half an hour of introductory material from Nicholas Hytner and Jeremy Irons (who, incidentally, apparently seemed to wish he was anywhere else). Firstly, this was an aspect of the cinema experience which we could have quite happily done without: the 'trailers' were longer than at the Odeon!

Secondly, I was troubled at the content of what we were given. The discussion about the nature of the NT Live experiment was welcome and useful. However, we were then subjected to several minutes of interviews with cast and creatives, discussion of directorial and design decisions and snippets of rehearsal photography and audio footage. This was, of course, only for the screen audience's benefit, and I felt it was patronising and ill-advised. The imputation appeared to be that the provincial and international audience required elements of the production (including the back-story of the play) to be explained for them before they were allowed to see the performance itself, directing the viewer's thoughts before the curtain rose. Some people justify this as being similar to reading a programme beforehand, but this is emphatically not the case. The programme allows the viewer choice: they can read about the production beforehand, or they can put it to one side. The cinema screening forced contextual information onto the viewer as a requirement of and prelude to viewing. Intentionally or no, it was implied that the live London audience didn't need this, while we viewing elsewhere did. It also did the production a disservice, directing audiences towards a shared understanding of the production's intentions that negated the need for the audience to stretch themselves in the same way as a live audience.

Thirdly, we were required to watch for half an hour as the suited London audience seated themselves in the auditorium. The presence of a live audience offered nothing for the cinema audiences: they were invisible and inaudible for the entire production, an absent presence. To watch them at the start, therefore, seemed only to work to position exactly where the cinema audience weren't: we were present yet excluded; unacknowledged by the sharers in the live experience at all times. The on-screen crowd were the privileged spectators; as Hytner pointed out at the start, the actors would be performing entirely for their benefit in order to preserve the live experience. In essence, then, the international audience were immediately excluded from the 'real' experience: live audience were unaware of us, actors were actively ignoring us. We were voyeurs, not participants, and the fact that the live audience were given prominence at the start (we were watching them) reinforced the respective statuses of the various groups in this enterprise.

This became more troublesome in terms of the actual acting; for live performances do not all translate well to screen. In particular, Stanley Townsend's Theseus looked stilted and uncomfortable in extreme close-up, his movements stiff and awkward in a way that may well have looked quite commanding from the stalls, but from a foot away seemed oddly artificial. More upsettingly, John Shrapnel's excellently performed description of Hippolytus' death, with every nuance of the speech acted with frenzied gusto, actually turned out quite funny in close-up, and I was torn between deep feeling at the character's despair and laughter at the ridiculousness of the mediated image. By contrast, Dominic Cooper seemed to be playing far more for the cameras than the other actors, playing much of his response to other speakers through subtleties of expression and eye movement, which the camera picked up gloriously: yet I have no idea if the live audience would have noticed this.

Lastly for now (though I particularly hope this debate continues) was the matter of the ending, for which I turned my attention to specifically look at what the audience at Warwick did. The London audience began clapping long before our audience did, and the response was distinctly divided. Most people seemed to want to applaud, but a substantial portion simply got up and left. However, it became far more interesting as the curtain calls continued: for, it being a live performance, the curtain calls were long and conducted in multiple parts: individual bows, curtains rising and falling, etc. The applause at Warwick died down extremely quickly, while the London applause simply got ever greater. Some brave souls in our auditorium continued clapping extremely hard, and I had to wonder exactly why: were they genuinely carried away by enthusiasm for the production, or were they simply doing it because they thought they were meant to?

The problem was one of dissociation from the performance. What, exactly, is the nature of applause? It acts as a release of tension, as a means of congratulation and as a reaffirming of the shared experience of performance. The camera and cinema screen, however, acted as a divide which confused the issue enormously. The actors had not been acting for us- they had, explicitly, been acting for the crowd in the Lyttleton. Equally, our responses had been invisible to the cast, and continued to be: we had not in any way contributed to the live experience of the performance. Applause thus lost much of its significance, which I believe is why the Warwick audience's applause was overall united, but extremely brief. Applause served, in the end, mostly as a form of self-affirmation of the experience: we were applauding because that's what we would do in the course of a live event; we were attempting to justify our experience as truly theatrical.

This was immediately undercut, as the safety curtain went down for the last time, by the appearance of scrolling credits, listing cast, crew and technical support for the broadcast. Applause or credits - can you have both? For this event you apparently can, but neither seemed to properly fit the moment. These final moments of confusion over how to respond were entirely dictated by anxiety over how we were supposed to respond, and it was clear that the audience at Warwick were very much divided on this: some felt it was a film, some a show, some something undefined inbetween that had no rules. What was lacking was the feeling of a gut, unified audience response: the swell of an ovation, the shared intakes of breath, the movement and buzz of a live audience. The audience watching Phedre in the Warwick Arts Centre Theatre last night were like no theatre audience I've ever been a part of. The appearance of the cinema screen immediately asks people to sit back and be entertained, to be passive, and for Phedre this simply felt wrong.

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

So, a lot of problems. I actually thoroughly enjoyed the production itself, even if I'm suspicious of the medium through which I experienced it. My final big worry, however, is that the inevitable success of this experiment will result in a shift towards this as the norm for the provinces, as opposed to large-scale touring shows. It's been a while since the National brought a large show around (the Arts Centre has had History Boys, Caucasian Chalk Circle, The Pillowman and plenty of other big productions in the last few years), and the live screening is a far cheaper and wider-reaching means of fulfilling the touring remit. I think this is a wonderful, wonderful thing for those areas to which the National would never go: for theatre-lovers in Australia or the US, for example, the chance to see a production that there would be no other way of seeing is obviously a great thing.

As a way of reaching larger audiences, too, it's a laudable enterprise - though, a far more democratic and academically sound way of doing this is to follow the RSC model: take the company into a studio, film a proper, made-for-camera version of the production and then screen it on TV and sell DVDs, which allows it to reach a much wider audience than the NT Live project and remakes the theatrical product in a manner which works with the screen medium. My issues with this project are the claims that it in any way replicates the theatrical experience: from an academic and theoretical point of view, this is deeply problematic, and even in realisation it lacked much of what makes a theatrical experience truly theatrical.

The next NT Live production is All's Well That Ends Well on October 1st, which will give me the chance to see the live screening applied to a production I've already seen in person, which I hope will allow me to compare the experiences usefully. For now, I found Phedre itself successful, but the medium will, to my mind, only be acceptable if it continues to be an optional extra, rather than a perceived replacement for the live experience.

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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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