Category Archives: Shakespeare

A Reign of Two Halves

KING JOHN

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 30th October, 2019

 

There’s an undeniably 1960s vibe to Eleanor Rhode’s production of this lesser-known history play.  Max Johns’s design puts the characters in sharp suits and polo-neck sweaters, dandy two-pieces, and East End gangster-ish fur coats.  This is the world of One Man, Two Guvnors with a touch of the Krays.  Will Gregory’s original compositions do much to enforce the period, with arrangements that are reminiscent of Quincy Jones (think Austin Powers theme!) and classics like Green Onions.  So, it all looks great and sounds great, and they have the dance moves down pat.  But…

The first half heightens the humour.  Rhode delivers up a black comedy with a couple of rather gruesome touches.  In the title role we have Rosie Sheehy, a principal boy (evoking fond memories of Pippa Nixon’s female Bastard in a previous production).  The gender-blind casting emphasises the youthfulness of the King and later, his unmanliness.  John is a weak king, but Sheehy’s portrayal of that weakness is strong – if you see what I mean.  Dressed in pyjamas and velvet suits, this John is a slightly Bohemian, somewhat cocky playboy, a 60s rock-star/poet/playboy.

Sheehy is surrounded by other strong performers, notable among whom are the excellent Bridgitta Roy as Queen Elinor,  John’s authoritative mother; Zara Ramm impresses in a brief appearance as Lady Faulconbridge; Tom McCall’s faithful Hubert’s loyalty is not without its sinister side; and Brian Martin’s Lewis the Dauphin would not be out of place, torturing narks in a lock-up.  Michael Abubakar’s Bastard (Scottish accent, red brothel-creepers) is indeed a cheeky bastard, but he seems a little side-lined at times.

The role of little prince Arthur is quite a large part for a child actor, and tonight it’s the turn of Ethan Phillips to elicit our sympathies.  He does a grand job, togged up like our own Prince George, and I like Rhode’s idea of having him appear ghost-like, rather than as a corpse.  In fact, it is through his Arthur that we come to regard John as a villain – not quite of Richard III proportions, but even so.  Incidentally, John’s protestant rant against Catholicism puts him ahead of his time (or hearkens back to Henry VIII, depending on your perspective!).  Katherine Pearce’s Cardinal Pandulph is a camp delight if a little one-note – but then, I suppose that represents the unwavering nature of the Church.

To my mind, it is Charlotte Randle’s passionate Lady Constance, righteous in her grief, who gives the pivotal performance of the production, growing from annoying guest who won’t shut up about it, to a genuinely moving portrayal of emotional disturbance.  After her hair-tearing scene, the production is never quite the same again.

Rhode gives us lots of fun ideas to make the action accessible, even if we’re not always entirely sure who everyone is.  In the second half, the comedy is elbowed in favour of the darkness and the politicising, a tonal mismatch that doesn’t quite gel.  Perhaps the inclusion of more medieval motifs would marry the two sections, as characters get medieval with each other.  This is very much a game of two halves.

I find I have no sympathy for John’s messy demise in a tin bath.  Instead, it’s a relief to be rid of a weak leader.  The play points out – as if we aren’t painfully aware these days – that weakness at the top brings chaos everywhere.

King John production photos_ 2019_2019_Photo by Steve Tanner _c_ RSC_295649

Rosie Sheehy as King John (Photo: Steve Tanner (c) RSC)

 

 


Ah, Vienna…

MEASURE FOR MEASURE

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 7th August, 2019

 

Some people label this a ‘problem play’ and I have a problem with that.  What it is is a dark comedy that deals with issues of morality.  Here, director Gregory Doran has for the most part a light touch, so the comedy has the upper hand over the darkness.  It’s definitely a production of two halves, the first setting out the stall so the circumstances of Isabella’s dilemma are established.

In what is basically the first-ever episode of Undercover Boss, the Duke leaves town, putting pasty-faced Slytherin alumnus Angelo in charge, but comes back disguised as a friar to observe how things turn out.  Angelo instigates draconian laws to punish the immoral.  Pretty soon, Claudio is condemned to death for impregnating his fiancée, and his sister Isabella, a novice nun, is called in to plead for clemency.  Angelo takes a fancy to the novice, in a Captain Von Trapp meets Maria kind of way and makes an indecent proposal.  If Isabella will sleep with Angelo, he will pardon her brother.  Which was will Isabella jump?  It takes the machinations of the Duke-in-disguise to bring about a resolution and expose the hypocrisy at the top of Viennese society.

Stephen Brimson Lewis’s design establishes the show’s Viennese credentials from the off; it’s the Vienna of Strauss.  There are waltzes – everything but Viennese whirls, dancing horses and Midge Ure.  The set is sparse, with projections to establish locations and mirrored panels across the back wall, reflecting the audience back at itself – a mirror to society, get it?

More familiar to me for tragic, heroic roles, Antony Byrne is having a lot of fun as the Duke, throwing his weight around and keeping us in on the joke.  The Duke’s plotting may seem a little cruel, especially when he makes Isabella believe her brother has already been beheaded, but then this is a play about men’s treatment of women.  Doran gives us a delicious final image, when it dawns on Isabella that having escaped the clutches of one man who wanted her against her will, she is in the grasp of another, and never mind what she wants out of life.

As Isabella, Lucy Phelps is the emotional heart of the piece and gives a powerful, compelling and likeable performance.  I have seen Isabellas too up themselves to be sympathetic but here Phelps pitches everything right.  Sandy Grierson’s Angelo starts as a cold fish, struggling to repress his baser urges before being exposed as a massive hypocrite worthy of any Tory cabinet.

James Cooney makes an appealing Claudio, while David Ajao’s West Indian accent augments the comedic aspects of Pompey the pimp-turned-executioner’s assistant.  Amanda Harris gives sterling character work as the Provost, and, in their brief appearances, Graeme Brookes and Michael Patrick make strong impressions respectively as Mistress Overdone, the local madam, and Constable Elbow, a kind of prototype Dogberry, complete with malapropisms.  Claire Price is an earnest Escalus and Patrick Brennan a creepy Abhorson the executioner, but for me the man of the match is Joseph Arkley as the dapper Lucio, who is positively hilarious throughout.

Paul Englishby’s score is sumptuous and the second half begins with a plaintive song sung sweetly and with emotion by Hannah Azuonye that is brought to an end much too soon!   I could do with more of this!

The second half lets broad comedy take the lead and the action moves on apace, with enjoyable appearances from Graeme Brookes’s Black Country Barnardine, and the contrivances of the plot keep on the right side of credible (just about).

More fun than I was expecting, this is a Measure that speaks to us today.  Strict, moralistic statutes only lead to increased hypocrisy and division between lawmakers who break their own laws and the rest of us who fall foul of prohibition just for being human.

Measure for Measure production photos_ 2019_2019_Photo by Helen Maybanks _c_ RSC_286285

Antony Byrne as the Duke/Friar (Photo by Helen Maybanks (c) RSC)


Rock Bottom

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 18th June, 2019

 

Oddsocks return, not only to Coventry, but also to Athens, the fictional Athens of Shakespeare’s romcom, for this new production that marks thirty years in the business.  Director Andy Barrow never fails to come up with new ideas to reinterpret and restage the Bard, with his pared-down cast and signature Oddsocks humour.  A stroke of genius is to have the ‘Mechanicals’ as builders working at Theseus’s palace: and so the set is initially draped in their dustsheets before ‘transforming’ into the forest.  Barrow himself appears as Bottom the Builder (yes, he can!) complete with beer belly and builder’s bottom.  We laugh straight away but even dressed like this, Barrow can wring nuances from his characterisation.  His Egeus is a blustering gammon, and his Oberon is a towering faun, with cloven hooves and curling horns.

Most of the humour, most of the playing, is done with broad strokes, and Barrow’s cast prove masters (and mistresses) of the in-house style.   Alex Wadham’s cocky Demetrius and desperately melodramatic Thisbe; Asha Cornelia-Cluer’s upper-class twit of a Hippolyta, her plucky Helena and graceful Titania; Peter Hoggart’s sheepish Lion – (Hoggart brings slapstick, physical comedy to his Lysander); and Christopher Smart’s easy-going Theseus and officious Peter Quince… Alice Merivale’s feisty Hermia and her energetic Scouse Puck… The entire ensemble works tirelessly to populate the scenes, adlibbing when they need to but also delivering Shakespeare’s verse with expression and conviction.  This is Shakespeare at its most accessible – the inclusion of popular songs, played live by this versatile cast, adds to the fun and to the story.  I’ve seen many a jukebox musical where the song choices don’t work anywhere near as well.  Hermia and Lysander give a rendition of The Corrs’s Runaway, Helena sings You Can’t Hurry Love, Bottom treats us to Passenger’s Scare Away The Dark (I suspect Andy Barrow would be a rock star in another life)… The whole thing ends with Oberon and the Fairies Dancing in the Moonlight.  And it’s a blast.

Of course, the play-within-a-play is achingly funny, with the added bonus of a member of the audience selected to portray the Wall, for a spot of good-natured victimisation.  Where some productions attempt to make us feel with Thisbe’s mock-plaintive words, Barrow goes all-out for big laughs.  And gets them.

A joyous version, both faithful and subversive, that shows Oddsocks are still at the top of their game after all this time.  Here’s to the next thirty years!

A Midsummer Nights Dream

It Takes Two: Oberon (Andy Barrow) and Titania (Asha Cornelia Cluer)


All’s Fairy in Love and War

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 9th June, 2019

 

The Crescent’s summer touring production this year is Shakespeare’s enduring romantic comedy with a supernatural twist, and I am lucky enough to catch an indoor performance rather than brave the vagaries of the British summer!

This is an enjoyable, accessible production – Director Georgina Evans opts for modern-dress on a simple set of slender branches and fairy lights; although, I do find the draconian laws of Athens at odds with the familiarity of the attire.  I think more needs to be made of the sheer unreasonableness of the patriarchy here (Marry whom I tell you to or be celibate for the rest of your life) and poor Hermia (Charlotte Thompson) needs to be more terrified/upset/resentful/what-have-you at the onset, so that when Lysander (the excellent Jacob Williams) steps forward with an escape plan, it comes as more of a relief, a desperate measure for desperate times.  Hold up, I did say this is a comedy… In Shakespeare, a comedy is where the problems of the drama are overcome by the characters (as opposed to tragedy, where the characters are overcome by the problems).  After this dark and severe (and potentially tragic) opening, the fun and frolics in the forest should come as sharper contrast.  Evans has an eye for comic business, and it’s the little details, the interplay, the fleeting expressions, that bring the joy to this production.

Ollie Jones is Duke Theseus – he warms into the role as the play goes on, lacking the imperious tones and power of Andrew Cowie’s magnificent fairy king Oberon (special mention to Angela Daniels for his striking costume and headdress).  Aimee Ferguson is a subdued Hippolyta, yet this conquered Amazon is not shy to express her views, through action, while Shady Murphy’s Titania is a dynamic presence.  Les Stringer brings gravitas as the unreasonable Egeus, softening into a kind of Polonius figure when he is finally overruled by the Duke.

Charlotte Thompson has her moments as Hermia – particularly the slanging match with Jessica Shannon’s marvellous Helena.  Jordan Bird is a pleasing Demetrius, vying with Jacob Williams’s Lysander – both do the lovestruck fool bit rather well.  Dayna Bateman is thoroughly charming as the hardworking Puck, whose meddling in mortal affairs does not always go to plan.

The Mechanicals are a likeable bunch, led by ‘Rita’ Quince (Nicole Poole) with Scott Wilson’s Flute blossoming into a sublimely ridiculous Thisbe, towering over a diminutive Pyramus (Crescent stalwart James David Knapp having a crack at Bottom, so to speak).  Knapp’s comic instincts are sound and I’d say he could afford to be even more bullish as Bottom dominates the group’s rehearsals.

While there are some line-readings that don’t quite come across, on the whole everyone handles the language rather well and with conviction, which is no mean feat when there are scenes comprised of rhyming couplets.  Of course, the play-within-a-play provides the most laughs – it’s one of the funniest scenes in Shakespeare, in all theatre, probably, and the company do an excellent, raucous job with it.  There’s a lovely celebratory feel to the closing moments and a rousing song to finish.  Funny and sweet, the show would perhaps benefit from starker contrast between the dark and light to intensify the impact of both.

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Top Bottom: James David Knapp (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)


Shrewd Moves

THE TAMING OF THE SHREW

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Thursday 2nd May, 2019

 

Gender-swapping is all the rage in theatre these days but if there’s a play where changing the men to women and vice versa actually makes a point about the world we live in, it’s this one, Shakespeare’s not-so-romantic comedy about conformity to gender roles.  The setting is a matriarchy, instantly conjuring memories of The Two Ronnies and their Worm That Turned series.  While that show was about revolution, Shakespeare’s is about moulding the individual to comply with societal norms.  Both, I think, show the limitations of expecting as gender to behave in a certain way.  Unlike The Two Ronnies’ serial, which was set in a dystopian future, this production is set very much in the 1590s and things are ticking along nicely, thank you, with women, mature women, ruling the roost as captains of trade and industry.

Baptista Minola (a strident Amanda Harris) is trying to marry off her sons.  The one is sweet and lovely (and hilarious – beautifully played by a hair-tossing James Cooney); the other is aggressive and ferocious – but these women are not cowed by such masculine outbursts, mainly because in their world, such displays are exceedingly rare.  ‘Kate’s tantrums are perceived as an individual’s aberrations, rather than the way that men carry on in general.  As Katherine, Joseph Arkley is both a commanding and an appealing presence.  He is a stallion to be broken, a hound to be brought to heel, a direct contrast to the effeminacy prevalent in other men, for example Richard Clews’s camp old retainer, Grumio.

The woman for the job is Claire Price’s wild-haired Petruchia, all gusto and caprice – it’s OK for women to have their norm-stretching eccentricities, of course.  Well up for a bit of ruff, Price is delightfully unpredictable and very funny.  In fact, the production is riddled with funny women.  There’s a joyous double act: Emily Johnstone’s Lucentia and Laura Elsworthy’s Trania – the latter a real hoot when disguised as a noblewoman.  Sophie Stanton’s Gremia glides around as though on wheels, while Amy Trigg’s Biondella, actually on wheels, darts around, adding to the farcical elements of the action.  There is an elegant turn from Amelia Donkor’s Hortensia.  This Padua is more like Cougar Town, with women of a certain age eyeing up the young male totty.

There’s a vibrant, gorgeous score by Ruth Chan and sumptuous period costumes by Hannah Clark.  Director Justin Audibert keeps the staging traditional – apart from the gender-swaps – and it works brilliantly.  A finely-tuned ensemble keeps the laughs coming and the gender-swaps cast new light on what can be a problematic piece for present-day audiences.  Inversion puts the status quo in the spotlight, and we see how ludicrous it can be to expect individuals to tailor their conduct to adhere to one end of the spectrum or the other.

There’s a lightness of touch to the whole enterprise, so don’t dread a sociological treatise.  This is a hugely enjoyable, refreshing take on a classic that works beautifully.  Wonderful.

The Taming of the Shrew production photos_ 2019_2019_Photo by Ikin Yum _c_ RSC_275034

Joseph Arkley and Claire Price (Photo: Ikin Yum)

 


Mac Duff

MACBETH

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 12th March, 2019

 

I have lost count of the number of productions of the Scottish Play I have seen over the years; I have yet to see one that gets everything absolutely right.  This touring version of the acclaimed National Theatre production doesn’t, I’m afraid, do it for me either.

Set ‘now’ but ‘after a civil war’, the action takes place in a dingy world of camouflage gear and the kind of clothing that gives the cast the appearance of an urban dance troupe that has fallen on hard times.  I’m all for diversity in casting, but I can do without Diversity as an aesthetic.  I half-expected Ashley Banquo to come on and flip Fleance over the heads of the group.  Said Fleance is gender-swapped and dressed like a young rapper.  Nuff said.

Rae Smith’s set includes a large ramp, like a broken footbridge, which is initially put to good use but is then side-lined in favour of plastic chairs and beat-up sofas.  There are also tall poles, like bedraggled palm trees, up and down which the Three Witches clamber and slide like post-apocalyptic circus performers – I could have done with more of this kind of thing, and a bit less of their booming, echoey voices, which go against their other ethereal qualities.

Michael Nardone’s Macbeth is all right to listen to, but we don’t get the impression of a great warrior gone bad – especially not when he’s being duct-taped into his armour.  Kirsty Besterman’s Lady Macbeth’s first appearance, in khaki vest, has the look of a military physical trainer, which she trades up for some garish gowns, at odds with the rest of the design.  Besterman brings intensity though and her sleepwalking scene is rather good.

Instead of crowns, the ruling monarch sports a blood-red suit, and so Duncan (Tom Mannion – effortless in his nobility) looks like a lounge singer.  When Macbeth later dons the trousers, it brings to mind the “I am in blood stepped in so far” line, which makes sense of Moritz Junge’s costume choice at last.

I can’t take to Joseph Brown’s Malcolm in the slightest but I do like Deka Walmsley’s bawdy Geordie Porter, Patrick Robinson’s Banquo, and above all Rachel Sanders’s Ross – these three seem to get the most out of the language, while coping with director Rufus Norris’s decisions, some of which make Shakespeare sound ironic: “This castle hath a pleasant seat” (it doesn’t; it looks like half a portacabin) and “Never shake thy gory locks at me” (Banquo’s pate is as bald as a Malteser)…

There is some effectively dissonant original music by Orlando Gough, and Paul Arditti’s sound design adds to the eeriness – until it becomes intrusive – while Paul Pyant’s lighting is suitably dramatic.  But the action doesn’t grip me, the tragedy of a great man brought low by his ambition and supernatural interference doesn’t’ come across.

Ditch the camouflage get-up and the urban combat gear.  Let’s have a Game of Thrones version.  That would be relatable to the Youth too.

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Ramping up the action: the cast of Macbeth

 

 

 


As You Lump It

AS YOU LIKE IT

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 27th February, 2019

 

The plot of this rom-com from Shakespeare is bunched up at either end of the play.  A lot happens in the opening scenes – even a wrestling match – but when characters become exiled from the dukedom, the story line goes for a meander through the Forest of Arden, branching out into subplots about various pairs of lovers, until our protagonist Rosalind, seems to realise we’ve reached Act V and decides to pull all the threads together for a resolution.

The opening scenes are fine, with Anthony Byrne’s menacing, paranoid Duke Frederick ruling the roost.  David Ajao is an embittered and angry Orlando, disenfranchised by his weaselly brother Oliver (an excellent Leo Wan) but Orlando softens when the surprise of his victory (sorry if that’s a spoiler) against the Duke’s in-house wrestler Charles, is topped by his surprise falling in love with Rosalind at first sight.  Graeme Brookes’s Charles is more of a besuited bouncer – Frederick runs his realm like some kind of underworld boss, and Emily Johnstone is also good fun as Le Beau, tottering across the grass in her high heels and Krystle Carrington hairdo.

Lucy Phelps is a hugely appealing Rosalind, but I find Sophie Khan Levy even more so as her good-time gal cousin, Celia.  And so, I am liking this As You Like It

Then we get to the forest.

In a startling moment, director Kimberley Sykes flips the production on its head – much as the characters’ lives are turned upside down – and, taking the words of Jaques as a game plan, shows us that all the world is indeed a stage.  Sykes’s Arden is a bare stage with costume rails wheeled on, where lighting cues can be summoned by characters at the click of a finger.  It’s a bold move, and a valid one, except I am no longer with the characters on their journey.  I am, like Celia, Aliena-ted, and kept at a distance.  It’s a case of the concept working against the content.  With new characters coming and going as the subplot rattles along, I lack the attachment and investment one feels in say, a Much Ado, or a Twelfth Night.  Shakespeare gives us love in many facets in these scenes, but I find myself not caring.

Sandy Grierson is striking as Touchstone the fool, like a glam-rock Max Wall with a touch of Billy Connolly, but his love scenes are too aggressive.  He practically bullies lonely goatherd Audrey into a relationship (via the medium of British Sign Language, which adds another layer of humour to the scene).  Gender-swapped Jaques (Sophie Stanton) wanders about aimlessly, and I like the fluidity of Phoebe (Laura Elsworthy – very funny) who has set her sights on Rosalind as a boy, while being pursued by bright-eyed Silvia (Amelia Donkor) her earnest same-sex suitor…

At the moment when Rosalind effects a resolution, the scene is dominated by the arrival of a massive puppet, altogether too distracting I find.  In her epilogue, Rosalind invites us to ‘like as much of this play as please you’.  Unfortunately, the parts I do like are overshadowed by those I don’t.

As You Like It production photos_ 2019_2019_Photo by Topher McGrillis _c_ RSC_273380

Sophie Khan Levy and Lucy Phelps as Celia and Rosalind before they are ‘turfed out’ (Photo: Topher McGrillis (c) RSC)