Tag Archives: Shakespeare

Wizard!

IAN McKELLEN on Stage: with Tolkien, Shakespeare, Others and YOU

The REP, Birmingham, Friday 21st June, 2019

 

It begins with a reading from The Lord of the Rings; you know the bit, where Gandalf faces down the Balrog on that narrow subterranean bridge so that the rest of the Fellowship can get away.  McKellen treats us to a vivid piece of storytelling – the first of the night – the battered paperback merely a prop.  He has it by heart and puts his heart into it.  It’s spellbinding stuff and I’m almost sorry that he doesn’t do the entire saga!

Gandalf is the role that brought one of our finest actors to global attention but, as McKellen reminds us, his career has been long and varied.  The first half of this retrospective brims with anecdotes, from film and theatre, of his early life in Bolton – a three-year-old McKellen visiting Manchester’s Palace Theatre proves fateful, when a production of Peter Pan alerts the young boy to the magic of the stage…

From a huge cardboard trunk, plastered with stickers from theatres this tour has already visited, McKellen takes out souvenirs, prompts for each anecdote.  A young man is beckoned from the audience to try out Glamdring, Gandalf’s renowned sword.  At other times, McKellen is keen to include us, en masse, because of our shared love of the theatre.  Audience members murmur in nostalgic recognition as he throws out names of actors, many of whom are long since gone.  The REP itself merits special mention for its history and influence on many a career.  The story of receiving his knighthood is played out with delicious comedic skill.  A real treat is to get a glimpse of his Twankey, as he recalls his time in pantomime at the Old Vic.

Using only the warmth of his personality and, of course, that marvellous voice, McKellen has us in the palm of his hand.  There are no video clips, no projections, just the objects from the trunk.  The stories often come with punchlines, delivered with exquisite timing;  the readings, of works by T S Eliot and Gerard Manley Hopkins, are captivating, electrifying.  The story of how, after many years, McKellen came out, driven to it by Section 28, is inspiring and heartening.

The second half is devoted to Shakespeare.  McKellen unpacks stacks of books from his trunk and invites us to name all 37 of the plays.  Each title comes with an anecdote, an interesting titbit, or a performance of a key scene.  Hamlet and Macbeth get especial attention with lengthy extracts, but it is the eulogy from Cymbeline (Fear no more the heat o’ th’ sun) that is especially powerful.  It’s an absolute treat and again I am almost disappointed he doesn’t recite the complete works!

Designed to commemorate the actor’s 80th birthday, this tour is a wonderful opportunity to spend some time in the presence of a national treasure.  It’s a privilege to hear him perform, entertaining to listen to that wicked sense of humour, and a joy to see him in action.

A thoroughly lovely evening, joyous, poignant and life-affirming.  We need more positive forces like Sir Ian in these benighted times.  We need more nights at the theatre to bind and unite us during these dark days of division.

sir ian


The Boy Who Never Grew Up

HAMNET

Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Wednesday 21st November, 2018

 

No, you read it correctly.  This is not Hamlet, the great tragedy, but it concerns another production of Shakespeare’s: his only son, the ill-fated Hamnet who died at the tender age of 11 while his father was working away from home.

11-year-old Aran Murphy commands the stage in a beguiling, captivating performance as Hamnet questions the nature of existence.  His refrain is “I haven’t done anything” – referring to the injustice of his untimely end, and the whole of his brief life’s experience.  West embodies innocence and schoolboy curiosity, charming an audience member out of his seat to join him in a scene in which Prince Hamlet is confronted by the ghost of his father.  Hamnet, the boy, is haunted by his absentee father.  “If I don’t talk to strangers, I’ll never meet my dad.”

A perky lad, he has his father’s aptitude for performance.  When his dad finally appears, manifesting on the huge screen that reflects the audience back at itself, the on-stage boy and the reflected boy interact with the figure in perfect unison.  Objects moved by the on-screen Shakespeare move as if by themselves on the stage.  It’s a dazzling piece of stage trickery: they have to pre-record these moments anew at each venue.  Or perhaps it’s some kind of Pepper’s Ghost set-up, brought into the 21st century…

It dawns on us that rather than the son being haunted by his father, the man is haunted by the child he left behind and then lost forever.  A quote from King John is like a punch in the feels.  “Grief fills the room up of my absent child…”

Written by Ben Kidd and Bush Moukarzel, this is a moving meditation on the nature of life and death, a pint-sized Hamlet, I suppose.  Deceptively simple, this is a powerful production by Irish company, Dead Centre.  Funny, enchanting and poignant, it’s the kind of stuff that stays with you.  Very little is known about the actual boy in question, but I will be haunted for a long time by this breath-taking performance from Aran Murphy (pictured)

aran

 

 

 

 


Best of a Bard Bunch

WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE’S LONG LOST FIRST PLAY (ABRIDGED)

The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 14th February, 2017

 

The Reduced Shakespeare Company is back.  Building on the success of earlier, brilliant shows (The Complete Works, The Bible) this time the premise is the discovery of a manuscript – beneath a car park in Leicester, of course – of Shakespeare’s first attempt at dramatic endeavour.  It turns out old Will had all his ideas at once and bunged them all in one play.  So begins a mash-up of Will’s most famous lines, scenes and characters.  If you’re a Shakespeare nerd, you’re in for a good time.

Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor’s (and Shakespeare’s) script is clever, bordering on genius, throwing out such wonderful clashes as Dromio and Juliet, Hamlet and Lady Macbeth, King Lear and the Three Witches… hijacking lines out of context, or rather giving them new context as befits the skit.  It makes you realise how many recurring ideas Shakespeare had.

If you’re not a Shakespeare nerd, you may be somewhat bewildered, but I think there’s enough daftness and comic invention to keep you laughing.  References to contemporary culture abound: Beyonce, for example, and a High-Street purveyor of baked goods that rhymes with legs.  The show posits a theory that Walt Disney is a latter-day Shakespeare – but, if you’re not a Disney nerd either, you might not catch all the jokes.

The cast of three work apparently tirelessly to keep the pace fast and the laughs coming.  Joseph Maudsley’s little mermaid Ariel is a joy, James Percy makes a formidable Lady Macbeth, and Michael Pearson’s ukulele-strumming Richard III is a scream – but much of the fun comes from the quick changes and the surprising juxtapositions of characters and speeches.

The plot, such as it is, concerns a ‘merry war’ between Ariel and Puck, using their magic to interfere with characters’ lives.  It takes the Bard himself to appear as deus ex machina to sort it all out at the end.  The first act climaxes in a slapstick tempest, with audience participation – it is this kind of daftness everyone can enjoy.  Director Austin Tichenor doesn’t let the action stagnate and I wonder if a smaller, more intimate venue might assist with audience engagement – it would certainly save the cast a lot of running around; they have to cover a lot of ground to maintain the pace.

It is part of the company’s ‘brand’ to perform with American accents.  Somehow this makes their handling of the material crasser but no less clever.  You may not appreciate all the in-jokes and literary allusions but you cannot fail to admire the energy of this smartass show, performed by a trio of exquisite comic players.

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Something is Rocking in the State of Denmark

ROLL OVER BEETHOVEN

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 6th September, 2016

 

The title might lead you to expect a jukebox musical but writer-director Bob Eaton’s new piece is all-new, all-original.  Well, up to a point: the plot is lifted from Hamlet and some of the tunes are Ludwig Van B’s.  Eaton also draws on Shakespeare for iambic pentameter and rhyming couplets, which give the show a heightened theatricality and also provide the opportunity for some literary gags.  This is Return to the Forbidden Planet meets That’ll Be The Day.   Eaton’s tunes pastiche classic rock and roll hits.  Performed by a talented ensemble of actor-musicians, the songs have an authentic sound and, unlike some jukebox musicals, the songs develop rather than interrupt the plot.

It’s also very funny.

It’s Britain and it’s 1956 and Michael Fletcher is Johnny Hamlet, returning from national service in the RAF to attend his father’s funeral.  His father’s ghost keeps appearing, driving the young man around the bend with his demands for revenge.  Matthew Devitt is in excellent form as the murdered man and he plays a mean guitar – often at the same time.  Young Hamlet adopts a leather jacket and D.A. hairdo as he goes off the rails, while Ophelia (Chloe Edwards-Wood) rebels against her straitlaced father Polonius (Steven Markwick).  Oliver Beamish’s affable Claud reminds me of Boycie at times – and you question if this character could stoop to murdering his brother… Georgina Field’s Gertrude is an energetically common, gorblimey Londoner, bringing a touch of music hall to her songs.   Meanwhile, Larry (Laertes) is dropping hints about his own emotional trials (the handsome Joseph Eaton-Kent, cutting quite a dash); and Niall Kerrigan brings a lot of fun to his role as Teddy boy/wide boy Waltzer.

Patrick Connellan’s set evokes a 1950s dance hall, enhanced by the backdrops of Arnim Friess’s video designs.  Choreography by Beverley Norris-Edmunds adds to the period setting, although for the most part, the cast are playing instruments while moving, acting and singing.

It’s an engaging, amusing show that proves irresistible, tickling the funny bone and setting the toes tapping.  Eaton tempers the nostalgic appeal with touches of social commentary: those who long to return to Britain as it was in the 1950s would do well to be reminded of the unhealthy aspects of the era, from the prevalence of smoking (it was good for you back then!) and the law against homosexuality, to name but two.  Also, “everything was in black and white and there was no Radio 1” – Every cloud!

This is a feel-good Hamlet, if you can imagine such a thing.  On reflection, I wonder if a different title might suit it better: we expect to hear the titular song but it never comes, although what we do get is more than good enough.

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Michael Fletcher as Johnny Hamlet (Photo: Robert Day)

 

 

 

 


A Dark Night

TWELFTH NIGHT

The Attic, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 4th September 2014

 

Shakespeare’s bittersweet rom-com is given a fresh injection of darkness in this touring production by PurpleCoat. The setting is present day – judging by the pulsating dance music and the designs of the beach towels that form the backdrop. Illyria is party central but there are two flies in the ointment. The first is lovelorn Duke Orsino: self-indulgent and selfish, he is a man in love who considers no one else’s passions but his own. The second is the Lady Olivia whose prolonged mourning for her dead father and brother keeps her from the world. These two speak with Liverpool accents, in an interesting reversal of class (their servants are much posher!). In some cases, the accent brings out the naturalism of the script but in others it jars a little. There are moments when the accent brings a note of bathos. There is much to laugh at with this pair. I warmed to Daniel Carmichael’s Duke and Rhea Little’s Olivia, like a WAG, has some deliciously funny moments.

Caitlin Clough is a strong Viola, clever and sometimes vulnerable. Stewart McDonald’s masterly Malvolio is funny and oddly sympathetic; he suffers distress at the hands of practical jokers – it is during the Sir Topaz scene that the play turns dark: the practical joke has gone sour. Even instigator Toby Belch cannot stomach it. Sir Toby is played by director Karl Falconer; by the end he is a broken man. His excesses have got the better of him and he totters around with an Ozzy Osborne frailness. Lee Burnitt’s Feste is rather intense for a jester but his music brings out the melancholy aspects of the play. The main players are strongly supported by Thomas Whittaker (Fabian and Valentine) and Jack Spencer makes an impression as Curio and Viola’s misplaced brother Sebastian.

Strongest of this young cast are Sam Liu’s Sir Andrew Aguecheek, who is part Kenneth Williams, part Charles Hawtrey and part Bertie Wooster, and Natasha Ryan as the scheming Maria. Between them, these two could perform a Carry On film.

There are dips in the energy and while most of the comic business works a treat, there is the odd moment of over-egging the pudding. In this small venue, the broader playing shows up weaknesses in the more naturalistic moments. Problems with the lighting mean often characters are standing in shadow – If they were in for a longer run than just this one performance, I would call these teething problems. I question the interpolation of a “Fuck this!” and Olivia telling Sir Andrew to piss off; they seem too out-of-keeping with the rest of the tone to be funny.

On the whole though, this is an invigorating romp with a touching denouement and a nasty aftertaste, and reminds me why I love the play so much.1TwelfthNight_ForWebsite


Camp David

RICHARD II

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 24th October, 2013

 

Hot on the heels of Ben Whishaw’s BAFTA-winning portrayal comes another favourite actor of mine in the title role of Richard II. A big name draw, David Tennant improves on his Hamlet (a characterisation I thought was The Doctor by another name) with a performance that switches from regal reserve to petulant camp and back again.  In a world of macho men in leather and shining armour, Tennant’s Richard saunters around in beautiful gowns, with his crown on his wrist like a bracelet.  With his hair extensions and sharp features, he is an off-duty drag queen or an old school rock star.  The effeminacy and the bitchiness energise a sometimes languid king.  It is a captivating performance.

The whole production is redolent with delicate beauty.  Projections of pillars and vaulted ceilings capture both the solidity and airiness of a cathedral.  Designer Stephen Brimson Lewis keeps scenery to a minimum, suggesting locations, complimented by Tim Mitchell’s lighting.  Richard’s throne flies in and out on a gantry, suggesting the monarch’s link to divinity – a bone of contention in the play.  The visuals are supported by beautiful music performed live by sopranos (the singers not the organised criminals) and trumpeters.  Gregory Doran’s production has no problem in engaging the eye and the ear, but what of the emotions and the intellect?

Oliver Ford Davies as York brings humour and heart.  Scenes with his wife (Marty Cruickshank) bring comic relief from all the politicking and macho posturing.  Michael Pennington’s John of Gaunt masterfully handles the play’s greatest hit, the ‘sceptre’d isle’ speech, and Nigel Lindsay’s meaty Bolingbroke makes an effective contrast to Tennant’s light-in-the-loafers king.

For me the most compelling on-stage presence is Oliver Rix as Aumerle.  Even in scenes where he has little to say, he is there, intense without drawing focus from the speakers.  His scenes with Tennant are the highlights.  Upset by Richard’s decision to hand over his crown, Aumerle is comforted by the king in a moment that is more tender than it is homoerotic.

When Richard is set upon by assailants in his dungeon, there is too much of the action hero in his self-defence.  The effete king reveals himself to be something of a medieval martial arts expert in a moment that is incongruous with the rest of the characterisation.  Yes, Richard would fight for his life, but not in such an obviously choreographed manner.  When the fatal blow is struck, it is a moment of shock and surprise – it’s a credit to the schoolgirls in this matinee audience that they gasped at this point rather than at Richard and Aumerle’s kiss.

The play begins and ends with a coffin centre-stage, reminding us of the cycle of kingship: one must die so the next can take over. With its projections and lighting effects, it is a production of surfaces.  We don’t really get to grips with the rights and wrongs of who should be on the throne and how he should behave.  Richard seizes what isn’t his to raise funds, which leads to rebellion.  Opposers of the Royal Mail and NHS privatisations, take note!

Who's a pretty boy, then? Oliver Ford Davies (Duke of York), Nigel Lindsay (Bolingbroke), David Tennant (Richard II) Photo by Kwame Lestrade

Who’s a pretty boy, then? Oliver Ford Davies (Duke of York), Nigel Lindsay (Bolingbroke), David Tennant (Richard II)
Photo by Kwame Lestrade


They F*** You Up, Your Mum and Uncle

HAMLET

RSC, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 28th March, 2013

 David Farr sets his Elsinore in an old-school school hall.  Wood panelling covers the walls.  Low benches from P.E. lessons and metal-framed stacking chairs.  Upstage, steps lead to a proscenium arch and a platform with some heavy duty chairs and table.  The wooden floor is marked with tramlines and fencing foils hang from the walls.  Fire doors lead off to the exit.  Above the proscenium, rather subtly, is the legend, Mens sans in corpore sano.  There is also a handbell knocking around but it’s the accoutrements of fencing that dominate – the sport rather than the gardening variety.  The masks especially are put to good use (Hamlet’s dad’s ghost wears the full rig-out) and the foils are put to almost constant use.

Hamlet (Jonathan Slinger) appears right at the start, in a black suit, still sobbing over his father’s death and what has followed.  With that suit and his specs, he looks like Philip Larkin.  But rather than a provincial librarian turned poet, Hamlet is a student at Wittenberg University – a mature student, it would appear.  We are in the early 1960s, judging from Jon Bausor’s designs – Ophelia (Pippa Nixon) in skirt, tights and sensible shoes is either a student or teacher, or perhaps a student teacher, shedding an armful of exercise books to throw herself into a passionate embrace with Philip Larkin, sorry, Prince Hamlet.  Horatio sports a jacket with leather patches at his elbows.  Laertes wears a polo neck.  This is the era before hair got really long and clothes became really colourful.

It’s a dingy Denmark, traditional and staid. But as we know, there is something rotten in the state.  The problem with Hamlet, I find, is it’s too familiar.  Almost every line is a famous quote.  It’s like Shakespeare’s Greatest Hits or even the English Language’s Greatest Hits.  So much of the play has entered common usage, it takes an excellent production to make the lines sound fresh and new and current within the context of the production.  This one does that, but patchily.  I suppose if this is your first Hamlet it’s a strong one but a long one to begin with.

Slinger doesn’t look like a Hamlet but he sounds like one and can drive a good soliloquy.  He has an impressive range of sarcastic gestures and mockery, and his energy never flags in a performance of contrasts and colours, mood swings and madness.  At one point he enters singing Ken Dodd’s Happiness but sadly without the tickling stick.  In scenes with his mother (Charlotte Cornwell) his petulant, rather teenage protestations are perhaps the greatest stretch of credibility, but on the whole this melancholy prince gives an impressive turn.  If you disregard the fact that he’s breaking most of the instructions he gives to the Players when they arrive.  Like his half-on and half-off fencing armour, the part doesn’t quite fit him, try as he might.

Nixon is a striking Ophelia, abused by Hamlet: he strips her down to vest and tights as if she’s forgotten her PE kit – and by the director: she has to lie dead in the dirt downstage centre for the final scenes while all around her is action and murder.  Horatio (Alex Waldmann – now there’s a Hamlet I would like to see) is a beatnik intellectual but no less genuine in his affection for his royal friend.  Greg Wise doubles as Claudius and the brother he murdered; his Ghost of Hamlet’s Dad is eerie and moving, while his murderous Claudius keeps a tight rein on himself until he’s alone and at prayer.  It was a special treat for this Rock Follies fan to see Charlotte Cornwell as an elegant Gertrude, looking fabulous in couture but also powerful as the woman who has unwittingly participated in her own and everyone else’s downfall.

I adored Robin Soans’s prissy and self-important Polonius and was sorry to see him stabbed behind the arras (ouch!) and as his son, Laertes, Luke Norris cuts a dashing figure.  His final confrontation with Hamlet doesn’t look like a fair fight, and indeed, it isn’t.

It’s well worth seeing but it’s more of a “Let’s see how they do this bit” kind of show rather than an engaging presentation of tragedy.  I didn’t get beyond regarding the actors as actors, or appreciating the technical aspects of the production, rather than being moved by the characters.

Larkin about

Larkin about (Photo by Keith Pattison)