Tag Archives: William Shakespeare

Much Fun About Everything

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 21st June, 2016

 

The remarkable Oddsocks Productions brings its summer outdoors show indoors, to the Belgrade’s B2 space – a wise move given the vagaries of the weather, although I have fond memories of a rain-lashed production of The Tempest at the mac many years ago, my first encounter with this hilarious company and the geniuses Andy Barrow and Elli Mackenzie.  I’ve been a devotee ever since and I’m delighted to have the chance to see this production again.  Last year, it toured with Twelfth Night; this year its stablemate is a steampunk version of Macbeth (Watch this space for a review next month!)

Director and adaptor Andy Barrow reprises his Leonato, a proud father and dad-dancer.  It’s difficult to talk about the show without spoiling the surprises but I will say he is correct in his assertion that he has all the best moves.  The performance shows off Barrow’s skills at physical comedy; the production as a whole shows off his theatrical chutzpah and nous.  Riding tandem with Shakespeare, the hallmarks of an Oddsocks show: slapstick, silly wigs, cartoonish props, musicianship, clowning skills, somehow get the story told while preserving the integrity of the script.  It’s a remarkable feat of ingenuity – we’re laughing along throughout but you know it’s working, you know Barrow has us in the palm of his hands in the church scene, when the feelings between Beatrice and Benedick are at last given voice.  You can hear a pin drop; Barrow lets Shakespeare take the driving seat for this perfectly poignant moment.  We are touched, we are thrilled, and all this time we thought we’d been sitting back and having a laugh.  Wonderful.

Of course, kudos is due to Rebecca Little and Joseph Maudsley, the Beatrice and Benedick who pull off this electricity.  Little is not short on presence; her Beatrice is a mass of scornful energy.  Maudsley’s Benedick is endlessly appealing.  The playing is broad, as befits an outdoor show, but Maudsley imbues his performance with truth and credibility, even during the knockabout stuff.

Both actors reappear in other roles.  Little’s Dogberry is a neighbourhood watch busybody with a penchant for torture; Maudsley gives us a perfectly observed drunkard in his Borachio, working the audience and larger-than-life but still utterly credible.

Similarly, Ben Locke’s dashing Claudio brings out the soldier and the lover among all the silliness.  Anna Westlake’s Hero is charming, in contrast to her Verges of the watch.  All the actors play instruments too – you have to be versatile in an Oddsocks show.  Gavin Harrison’s Don John, villain of the piece, is perfect pantomime; his rendition of Radiohead’s Creep is just sublime.  But that’s the thing about Andy Barrow: all the ideas, from song choices to silly wigs, are all a propos and in context.  The ideas support and serve Shakespeare, all to give us one of the most entertaining evenings you can spend at a play.

Sheer brilliance.

 

 


A Way With The Fairies

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM: A Play For The Nation

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 16th June, 2016

 

As part of the commemorations of Shakespeare’s 400th death-iversary, The RSC has undertaken the unenviable and colossal task of staging a production of his popular comedy and touring it around the country – but that’s only the half of it.  At each stop, the so-called ‘rude mechanicals’ are being played by hand-picked troupes of amateur performers.  A big chance for them and a big gamble for the RSC.  Add to this, dozens of children from local primary schools… Luckily, no one handles child performers like the RSC – you only have to think of Matilda to know this is going to work brilliantly.

If this afternoon’s performance is anything to go by, the gamble has paid off in spades.  It is an absolute pleasure to see ‘The Nonentities’ from Kidderminster taking the stage among world class professionals, and holding their own.  But I’ll come back to them in a bit…

Among the pros – a delightful ensemble that, under Erica Whyman’s direction, make familiar lines sound fresh and funny – we get a female Puck (Lucy Ellinson) a kind of cross-dressing music hall figure, like Vesta Tilley.  Ellinson is both knowing and clownish in this setting: we’re in a disused theatre, it looks like, during wartime.  Tom Piper’s design gives us bare floorboards and footlights.  The forest has not a speck of green but rather the red of the Curtain.  Chu Omambala’s Oberon, the fairy king, is stylish in his white suit, bringing a jazzy element to proceedings, in contrast with Ayesha Dharker’s exotic Titania, in blood red sari.  Omambala and Dharker are deadly serious – these are not fairies of whimsy, however petty their squabble may seem.

The other ruling couple, Theseus (Sam Redford) and Hippolyta (Laura Harding) stride around like genial aristocracy.  It is the younger members of the cast that bring life to the scenes in Athens.  Mercy Ojelade is a fiery Hermia, her passion born of pain and injustice, while Laura Riseborough’s Helena also expresses the pain of unrequited love in a highly sympathetic characterisation.  Chris Nayak’s Demetrius is a pompous prig, so it’s enjoyable to see him go to the other extreme in the name of love, but it’s Jack Holden’s delightful school prefect of a Lysander that gets the most laughs and touches the heart.  It is the freshest interpretation of this character I have seen.  Scenes in which the young men vie for Helena, to Hermia’s dismay and fury, are superbly done, using physicality as well as Shakespeare’s barrage of insults to great comic effect.

But back to those mechanicals.  Chris Clarke is spot on as overbearing bully Bottom – and you can’t help liking his ridiculous declamations.  Sue Downing’s Peter Quince is assertive enough to stage-manage Bottom’s ego, and Andrew Bingham’s shy Snug makes for an adorably shy and cowardly lion.  Of course, the West Midlands accent gives them a head start when it comes to comic value, but here it is the playing that gets the laughs and endears them to us.  Alex Powell’s Flute blossoms as a performer so we he comes to give his Thisbe (or Thiz-bay, as they would have it) we see how far he has come.  The performance that is the culmination of their efforts is absolutely joyous.  It is surely Shakespeare’s funniest scene and here it is expertly executed.  The affection we feel for the mechanicals succeeding in their task is echoed by the admiration we have for this company who rise to the challenge, hold their own, and pull it off with aplomb.

An unadulterated delight.

A_Midsummer_Night_s_Dream_A_Play_for_the_Nation_production_photos_February_2016._2016_Photo_by_Topher_McGrillis_c_RSC_184492

Chris Nayak and Jack Holden restrain Mercy Ojelade – just about (Photo: Topher McGrillis)

 


Great Briton

CYMBELINE

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Saturday 11th June, 2016

 

Melly Still’s production of Shakespeare’s rarely staged late play embraces the bonkersness of the story – revelling in it, in fact.  Set in a dystopian near-future, a post-technological age, there is a medieval quality to the design; inevitably my mind finds parallels with Game of Thrones.  The extremes of behaviour, the graphic violence – the play has more villains than your average Shakespeare, and, in this production, when Innogen disguises herself as a boy, she chooses Arya Stark cosplay.

As the beset princess, Bethan Cullinane is an appealing lead, with strength and vulnerability – the emphasis is on the latter.  Hiran Abeysekera shows conviction as her secret husband, Posthumus (aka Leonatus), but all the swagger, all the brio, comes from the bad guys.  Marcus Griffiths is magnificent as the arrogant, petulant Cloten; his serenade to Innogen is an unalloyed delight.  Oliver Johnstone is a delicious Iachimo, a louche lounge lizard, cocky and flash – for me one of his worst transgressions is his lack of socks.  James Clyde as the Duke, second husband of Cymbeline (in this show, the titular monarch has been gender swapped), plots and smarms, with elbow patches on his blazer, like a Machiavellian supply teacher.

Queen of the Britons, Cymbeline (Gillian Bevan) is authoritative but also world-worn.  She speaks with the authority of someone who has been through a lot – as if the loss of two of her children twenty years ago has been eating away at her.  Those lost children have been living in Wales all this time.  Mere mention of Milford Haven gets a laugh.  Natalie Simpson makes a fierce Polydore/Guideria, complete with Xena: Warrior Princess battle cry.  Her brother Belarius/Arviragus (James Cooney) is wiry and energetic; he sings beautifully when it comes to Fear No More the Heat of the Sun.

The whole cast is splendid.  Among the ensemble, Theo Ogundipe makes a strong impression in a couple of roles, and Kelly Williams stands out as troubled servant Pisania.

Melly Still freezes the action, or slows it right down, during the characters’ many asides – a neat device that reminds us this is not the real world we are witnessing.  Also, some scenes are spoken in Italian or Latin, with the text projected on the scenery.  This is amusing at first, but Latin doesn’t sound right in an English accent.  But then, who knows what Latin sounded like?

The play deals with deceit and treachery, allegiance and devotion.  War comes because Britain has not paid its tribute to Rome.  After some bloody rushing around and a high body count, Cymbeline agrees to pay what is due.  A metaphor for the upcoming EU referendum?  If so, Cymbeline is definitely on the REMAIN side.  Hooray.

This is a hugely enjoyable production, a real treat to be reacquainted with a play that is not as over-exposed and familiar as the Bard’s greatest hits.  Such is its charm and invention, we go along with it.  In the same way that the characters take reversals of fortune and revelations on the chin, we laugh along.  The sincerity and heart of the performance carries us through the sensationalism of the plot.  Another big hit from the RSC.

Cymbeline_production_photos_May_2016_2016_Photo_by_Ellie_Kurttz_c_RSC_192868

Cloten (Marcus Griffiths) sings his head off (Photo: Ellie Kurttz)


Clear Lear

KING LEAR

The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 24th May, 2016

 

Direct from Manchester’s Royal Exchange, this production of Lear jets into Birmingham.  It’s a satisfyingly traditional affair; the setting is the Dark Ages, the stage a stone circle.  Huge structures tower around it.  Signe Beckmann’s design is both evocative and versatile; the circular acting space serves as royal palace and blasted heath.  The costumes too convey the period.  We are in Game of Thrones territory and the characters behave badly accordingly.

Don Warrington makes a stately entrance as the eponymous monarch, in Jon Snow furs, but it’s soon apparent that he has already lost a marble or two, with his irrational game for the throne.  Whichever of his three daughters loves him best, will get the largest share of the kingdom.  It’s a lesson for all those with kids – don’t give them their inheritance while you’re still alive; they will only treat you abominably!  Warrington is powerful as the king losing his faculties and he is at his best, not when he is howling with grief, but in the quieter moments of clarity and self-awareness.  That really hits home.  Nowadays, if a playwright wants to write a piece about dementia, there is plenty of research material and you can probably get funding too; Shakespeare works purely from observation and I wonder who it was that he observed in order to depict the condition so accurately…

Philip Whitchurch is magnificent as the Earl of Gloucester – his journey is as devastating as Lear’s.  The blinding scene is a shocking slice of Grand Guignol, deliciously gruesome – director Michael Buffong should use that energy and ‘attack’ in other scenes; the pacing is somewhat pedestrian at times, making me long for judicious cuts – of the text, I mean, not the cast!

Fraser Ayres makes an enjoyable villain as the bastard Edmund and I also like Thomas Coombes’s rather flamboyant Oswald.  The Fool (Miltos Yerolemou) seems a little too sorrowful right from the off – he first appears as Matt Lucas in a Robert Smith wig – even his best japes are tinged with sadness.  He ends up like a bedraggled Miriam Margolyes – before his disappearance from the action.  Rakie Ayola and Debbie Korley are suitably nasty as evil bitches Goneril and Regan, while Norman Bowman’s Cornwall lends a Scottish lilt to the dialogue.  You wouldn’t want to endure the hospitality of any of them.

Alfred Enoch throws himself around as Edgar, disguised as ‘Poor Tom’, Wil Johnson’s Kent is suitably noble, and there is strong support from the likes of Sarah Quist and Sam Glen in ensemble parts.  Atmosphere is created in abundance by Johanna Town’s lighting and Tayo Akinbode’s sound design – distorted winds underscore turbulent thoughts.

On the whole, it’s an admirable production, a clear and straightforward handling of the tragedy that does not rely on gimmicks.  Excellently presented, it does however lack a certain something, a certain spark, to keep you gripped for its three-and-a-half hours.

Don Warrington (King Lear) Photo Jonathan Keenan (1)

Don Warrington (Photo: Jonathan Keenan)


Fresh Prince of Denmark

HAMLET

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 14th April, 2016

 

I don’t know how many Hamlets I’ve seen – the most recent was the Cumberbatch one in which I found the cast excellent but the whole somehow lesser than the sum of its parts.  One thing I do like in my Princes of Denmark is youth.  Hamlet shouldn’t be pushing forty.  He works better, I find, as a younger man, unsure of his role in the revenge drama that his life becomes when his uncle marries his mother so soon after the funeral of his father.  Uncertainty, indecision and depression can strike at any age, to be sure, but (as in this production) there is increased credibility when the life that’s turned upside down is that of a younger man, still finding his way in the world.

And so, Simon Godwin’s production begins with a snapshot of Hamlet’s graduation from Wittenberg Uni.  At once, Paapa Essiedu in the title role captivates.  Everything Hamlet will state later on about the Player King applies here: it’s all in his eyes.  Early scenes of grief and shock hit hard – Essiedu handles the all-too-famous soliloquies well, casting light and shade in surprising areas.  His lunacy, here signalled in shorthand by abstract painting – he gets as much on himself as on his canvases – adds unpredictability.  Above all, sensitivity comes to the fore.  This is a Hamlet we can care about.

Clarence Smith’s lying king Claudius gets across the public face of the dictator as well as the personal side – he can’t run his household as well as the state.  Tanya Moodie’s Gertrude is coolly elegant – at her best in the bedroom scene, horrified to see her husband’s ghost and strident in her denial of the phenomenon.  Cyril Nri’s Polonius is a star turn, funny and charming in his longwindedness.  His fate behind the arras also elicits laughter in its suddenness and slapstick.

Ewart James Walters impresses as the Ghost, in tribal robes, sonorous and forbidding.  He also plays the smart-alec gravedigger, with a twinkle in his eye.  Natalie Simpson’s Ophelia seems curiously sidelined until her mad scene, pulling her hair out and handing it around like sprigs of the herbs she names.  It’s always a difficult sell but Simpson makes it work, terrifying the court into singing her refrain.

Denmark has moved closer to the equator for this African-themed show.  Well, why not?  After all, Disney borrowed the plot for The Lion King.  Loud drums punctuate the more extreme moments and the colour palette suggests heat and intensity.  The music (by Sola Akingbola) reminds us this is a thriller, despite Hamlet’s vacillations.   The climactic fencing match with Laertes (a striking Marcus Griffiths) is done here with sharpened sticks.  The poisonings are swift and shocking – events come to a head in an outburst of action that breathes new life into the well-worn plot.  There is freshness in Godwin’s take that keeps this Hamlet watchable and affecting, but it’s Essiedu’s performance that is the keystone of the production.  Powerful in its intimacy, it’s a portrayal that touches and then breaks your heart.

Hamlet_production_photos_March_2016_2016_Photo_by_Manuel_Harlan_c_RSC_187401

Paapa Essiedu banging his own drum as Hamlet (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

 

 


Dream A Little Dream

POCKET DREAM

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Thursday 4th February, 2016

 

This production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream by the ever-excellent Propeller company is stripped down to a running time of just over an hour – the cast is also stripped down to their long johns, to which they add a cloak here or a hat there to enable them to double up on roles.

Robin Goodfellow aka Puck (aka Tam Williams) narrates, providing a nifty spot of exposition to cover scenes that have been mercilessly excised from the text. Gone are Duke Theseus and Queen Hippolyta. Gone too is Hermia’s father, taking with him the darker, more dramatic aspects of the story. Here, director Edward Hall and his co-adapter Roger Warren focus on the entanglements of the romantic comedy, along with the broader slapstick of the ‘rude mechanicals’. It all tears along at breakneck speed and is as slick as it is funny. Which is extremely.

The cast provide their own sound effects and backing music as they hurtle through the plot. Chris Myles is an imperious fairy king Oberon and a bombastic bully Bottom, a ham actor who, had there been any scenery, would have chewed it. Antony Jardine is a dashing Demetrius (well, there’s a lot of dashing around by everyone!) and an affable Peter Quince. Max Hutchinson’s coolly feminine Titania contrasts with his tightly-wound Helena, while Matthew McPherson’s Hermia rants and raves with an abundance of physical exertion. Oliver Wilson’s Snout is a groovy mover, as opposed to his hot-headed and more courtly Lysander. It is Tam Williams’s Robin/Puck that holds the thing together, charming in his tutu and playing a mean trombone.

The comic business is tightly choreographed and cartoonish in places. The attention to detail and the handling of pacing are delightful to behold. The text is clearly delivered, with Shakespeare’s rhyming couplets heightening the fantastic elements of events. The Pyramus and Thisbe performance, which I maintain is the funniest scene in all Shakespeare, is hilariously chaotic. Without the heckling of Duke Theseus and his courtiers, its silliness rattles along uninterrupted.

Aimed at young audiences, this Dream is an engaging, enjoyable, exhausting if not exhaustive introduction to the play, and to Shakespeare. If the reaction of audience members of every age is anything to go by, Propeller delivers a cracking night out for one and all.

 

 dream


The Conscience of the King

HENRY V

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 1st October, 2015

 

Gregory Doran’s new production takes its lead from the Chorus, who draws our attention to the limitations of theatrical presentations and pleads with us to use our imaginations – in fact, Oliver Ford Davies yells at us, urging us to work, as though he is a gruff old academic and us his dull students.  It makes for the most amusing Chorus I have seen, and it’s easy to imagine Ford Davies as the beloved terror of a university or a curmudgeonly presenter of a historical series on BBC 4.

Doran brings out a great deal of humour and there is no limit to his theatrical presentation!  The play seems well-served by this approach.  Jim Hooper’s Archbishop of Canterbury who has acres of exposition to deliver in hereby transformed into a delight.

The marvellous Alex Hassell’s Henry is very much a new king, finding his way and taking on board the counsel of his advisors.  He sits on the throne with his legs wide apart, consciously asserting his presence, like a selfish commuter ‘man-spreading’ on the Tube.  He is a thoughtful, sensitive Henry, a man of conscience and a fast learner.  At first, Hassell gives him a haughty, pompous tone as though Henry only uses his telephone voice but as the king becomes more accustomed to his position, he grows more natural, without losing status.  By the time we get to the Crispin’s Day speech he is indeed the war-like Harry – the delivery is both rousing and heartfelt.

There is comic support from the likes of Christopher Middleton’s Nym and Antony Byrne’s Pistol – this latter, especially, rounds out his characterisation beyond the physicality of the comic business.  There’s a Welshman, an Irishman bristling with mad hair and grenades, and a Scotsman – fun with stereotypes!  Simon Yadoo’s Scottish Jamy is hilariously unintelligible.  Joshua Richards’s Welshman Fluellen is more even-tempered, look you.  The funniest scenes involve Katherine (Jennifer Kirby) trying to learn English from her lady-in-waiting (Leigh Dunn); and Robert Gilbert is a hoot as the effeminate Dauphin, complete with pageboy bob.

But it’s not all laughs, larks and leeks.  Far from it.  Tensions and drama keep the plot going, linked by the Chorus’s narration: when Henry receives news of the execution of former drinking buddy Bardolph (Joshua Richards again) he has to govern his emotions and temper his response in accordance with his role as monarch.  And earlier, the reporting of the death of Falstaff is touchingly done by Sarah Parks’s Mistress Quickly.

There’s a happy ending: wooing Katherine, Henry is out of his depth.  His prowess in war cannot help him now.  Hassell has always excelled at comedy and leaves us on a high.  We come away with the feeling that Henry must have been a good king, (albeit a short-lived one) and we have been royally entertained by a refreshing, rollicking take on a well-worn history.

Royal Shakespeare Company production of HENRY V by William Shakespeare directed by Gregory Doran

Royal Shakespeare Company production of
HENRY V
by William Shakespeare
directed by Gregory Doran Photo: Keith Pattison


Great Dane

HAMLET

Barbican Theatre, London, Friday 11th September 2015

 

Currently the hottest ticket in town due to the presence of everyone’s favourite Cumberbatch in the title role, Lyndsey Turner’s production lives up to the promise and the hullaballoo. In the headlines because of ardent fans trying to capture the performance on their mobile phones, leading to the leading man making a statement, and then for the leading man’s pleas for the audience to toss money into buckets to alleviate the greatest refugee crisis known to humanity… This show comes with a lot of baggage.

I have seen countless productions of Hamlet and each one throws up the question, How old is the Danish Prince supposed to be? He wants to go to school in Wittenberg, presumably as a mature student, and he used to ride on Yorick’s back – the jester has been dead and buried for 23 years… Taking all this into account, I’d say late 20s, 30 at a push. Mr Cumberbatch is creeping up on 40, but this is what acting means: his Hamlet is a moody, post-adolescent, student-type, the kind you used to get in the 1960s. There is a youthful energy to his more manic moments, countered by a sober bitterness to his starker, depressive speeches.

The show begins, not on the battlements of Elsinore, but in Hamlet’s room. He’s playing Nature Boy by Nat King Cole, wallowing in the melancholy emanating from his record player, before he’s called down to join the celebratory dinner at his mother’s wedding to his uncle. The wall flies up and the full extent of the stage and set is revealed. A gasp almost sucks the air from the auditorium. Es Devlin’s palatial set puts us inside Elsinore. There is grandeur and opulence, ornamentation and power. A house is a well-established metaphor for the mind, and a haunted house for insanity. The Ghost of Hamlet’s father (the splendid Karl Johnson in a suitably spooky moment) is what tips the balance in Hamlet’s noggin. From that point, his behaviour deteriorates and the house falls into disruption and decay… By the second half, the house is like a bombsite, full of mud and rubble: Hamlet is at war with just about everyone. I can’t help thinking of the poor old stage crew, having to clear it all up before every performance!

We get lighting changes to isolate asides and soliloquies, and during some of the transitions, the cast judder and jitter like a DVD stutter or a videotape rewinding, like mental tics, I suppose, brief flashes of distorted reality, glitches in the matrix.

Hamlet marches along the banqueting table, dressed as one of his own life-size toy soldiers, fannying about in a man-size fort. I can only assume he had these giant toys as a small boy for them to be so handy. The toy soldiers bit I don’t like so much but there is no denying the power of Cumberbatch’s delivery of all the key speeches. The play is Shakespeare’s greatest hits album, Disc 1, where every other line is famous. Cumberbatch, and indeed the rest of the cast, keep the well-worn phrases fresh. “O, that this too, too solid flesh would melt…” is a highlight, as is “I have of late but wherefore I know not lost all my mirth…” and, of course, “To be or not to be…” is a set piece, a lesson in how it’s done. “Alas, poor Yorick…” gets an unwarranted laugh – the line is the cliché that identifies the play, and is the butt of countless parodies. The play suffers from its own familiarity, its lines so embedded in popular culture and everyday speech. Cumberbatch’s inflections shed new light: this is a Hamlet we can understand rather than find disturbing. We like him but we don’t fear for him losing his marbles. There is always the sense that he will cope.

For me, Ciaran Hinds as Claudius matches Cumberbatch in terms of star quality. We only glimpse overt villainy a couple of times: Hinds is the duplicitous politician, charming and plausible on the surface. Knowing what we know (through Hamlet’s eyes) this makes him all the more dangerous.

Anastasia Hille is a stately, restrained Gertrude, whose attire and demeanour deteriorate in tandem with her son’s mental health, and Sian Brooke works wonders with Ophelia’s tricky and awkward mad scenes.

Inevitably, a director has to make cuts. The text is too long for comfort. I appreciate the decision to keep the Ghost from us until Hamlet himself sees it, but I mourn the omission of Hamlet’s Irish friend: the ‘pat’ is excised from the “Now might I do it” speech!!

The play itself is flawed. Similarly this production is patchy; it’s more about moments rather than moment or momentum.  The visual impact of Gertrude clambering up a slag heap in pursuit of doomed Ophelia punches you in the face, but curiously, Turner’s staging choices do not show Claudius’s reaction to the play-within-the-play, which is surely the point of that scene.

We end with the excitement of the fencing match (thrillingly choreographed by Bret Yount) and the tragedy of Hamlet’s demise (we don’t really care about anyone else kicking the bucket). Fortinbras arrives and picks his way over the rubble for a downbeat denouement.

We clap our hands off. I am most pleased to have attended the event rather than being moved by it. And, of course, I am gratified to have seen actors of the stature and skill of Cumberbatch and Hinds, playing their roles like virtuosos.

hamlet

Holding the fort: Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet. (Photo: Johan Persson)


Sublime and Ridiculous

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING

mac, Birmingham, Sunday 19th July, 2015

 

Oddsocks is back (are back?) with another madcap double bill of Shakespearean comedy. The one I catch is my favourite of all of Will’s work (they’re also doing Twelfth Night) and I can’t wait to see what director Andy Barrow has done with and to it. With only a cast of six, there are some inevitable changes and truncations but the bulk of the text survives, along with the drama; Barrow takes away but he also gives – the action is augmented by the clever interpolation of pop songs. Amazingly, it all works like a dream.

Barrow heads the cast – I’d never seen a Much Ado in which Leonato is the star turn, but here we go. Unflinchingly silly, Leonato sports a Llewellyn-Bowen wig and a lounge lizard suit. He rips off his trousers to dance along to Single Ladies, and his shirt for a wrestling bout in order to settle his grievance with Claudio. As a performer, Barrow is a mass of physical energy; as a director, he is unerringly clever. It feels as though he is collaboration with Shakespeare.

Regular Oddsockian Kevin Kemp is a cheeky and adorable Benedick, who gets us on his side from the get-go. Kemp also doubles as henchman Borachio – a broader characterisation but nonetheless entertaining. Rebecca Little’s Beatrice is puckish and feisty. The pair handle the ‘merry war’ of wit with clarity and apparent ease – Andy Barrow lets Shakespeare’s best lines out untrammelled. Little is also Dogberry, leader of a neighbourhood watch whose interrogation techniques contravene several laws, including those of biology and physics. While in general the playing is broad, when it comes to the ‘low’ comedy, it gets broader still. Silliness abounds. It’s ridiculous but in keeping with the overall approach.

And then we come to the sublime. In the wedding scene, it falls to Peter Hoggart to turn the mood from comedy to drama as his dashing and handsome Claudio renounces his fiancée at the altar. It’s a powerful moment and you feel the gear change. And then he breaks into a rousing rendition of Tainted Love and we’re back in silly mode again. When Benedick and Beatrice admit their love for each other, you can hear a pin drop. Barrow lets Shakespeare do the work here and it’s electrifying. When Benedick challenges Claudio, we know he means it. Even in this cartoon-world of silly wigs and pop music, there can be genuine tension. Marvellous!

Lucy Varney is a spirited Hero who throws herself into the physical humour – and all the cast are adept at adlibbing. Gavin Harrison delights as villain Don John, a creep and a weirdo indeed. His Don Pedro is more understated (if anything in this production is understated) and allows for the dramatic tension of the later scenes to play. Shakespeare balances humour and emotion; Barrow does the same but cranks it up to eleven.

Oddsocks deliver the goods again. An accessible, highly entertaining evening enjoyed by all. I cannot praise or recommend them enough.

Beatrice (Rebecca Little), Benedick (Kevin Kemp) look on as the Friar (Gavin Harrison) ministers to the fallen Hero (Lucy Varney)

Beatrice (Rebecca Little), Benedick (Kevin Kemp) look on as the Friar (Gavin Harrison) ministers to the fallen Hero (Lucy Varney)


Much Fun About Plenty

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING

Stafford Gatehouse Theatre, Stafford Castle, Thursday 2nd July, 2015

 

Shakespeare’s finest and funniest rom-com comes to Stafford Castle in this new production directed by Peter Rowe. While the cast sings music hall songs, we find the set and the setting rather striking. Dawn Allsopp’s elegant stage, with trimmed lawns and a classical pavilion is bedecked with union flag bunting – to celebrate the return of the troops from the War. Behind and above this is the ruined castle, adding to the sense of England gone by (even though the play is nominally set in Messina).

Any Much Ado is only as good as its Beatrice and Benedick. In this one they are a mature couple: imagine Caroline Quentin and Boris Karloff – that’s a bit harsh, perhaps. Philip Bretherton’s Benedick is not so much a silver as an arctic fox and a bit stern, while Sherry Baines’s Beatrice is a little bit matronly. The pair are none the less witty for all this and it makes sense. They have spent their lives avoiding and railing against marriage and only come to find each other late in life: it adds poignancy to Beatrice’s lines about everyone else getting married but her and shows that love can keep us all young at heart.  You can’t help but like them.

Tom Palmer is a tall and dashing Claudio, capricious but not without conviction. He is especially good in the wedding scene and so is his intended Hero (Catherine Lamb). In fact, it’s the best scene of the night: Peter Rowe delivers the surprise and the tension. He could make more of the comic eavesdropping scenes, nicely played though they are. Edward York’s Leonato is delightfully hopeless at deception and yet heart-breaking when denouncing his daughter. Jake Ferretti’s Don Pedro is full of fun, in marked contrast to his whining petulant brother, Don John – the villain of the piece (Jon Trenchard).

Phylip Harries is a Welsh Dogberry and a very funny one. The scene in which he instructs the watchmen is glorious nonsense, a forerunner of the ‘awkward squad’ we still see in pantomimes today – and it’s gratifying to hear Shakespeare’s lines still getting laughs. They could do with another one or two men though, to flesh things out.

James Hague sings sweetly as Balthasar in a lovely version of Sigh No More, Ladies. As Don John’s henchmen, Dan de Cruz’s cheeky chappie Borachio makes a strong contrast with Charlie Tighe’s Conrade.

This is a satisfying production, not exactly innovative (but then, why tinker just for the sake of it?) and offers much to enjoy.

much ado