And so another year draws to a close, and it’s time to look back on another theatrical year. Here are the TheatrePunk awards!

So, in no particular order, here are the top ten. These represent the most fun I have had in a theatre this year. They may not be the best things to be staged in Britain this year, but they are the shows that gave me the most pleasure. The shows that I recommended to friends, sometimes saw twice, or the ones that really gave me something to think about. In summary, they are my favourites of the year…

Matilda (RSC)

Just an absolute joy from beginning to end. Intelligent, moving, funny and with a soundtrack that sticks with you and for two hours turns you into a child again. It was one of the best musicals I’ve seen in years, and I’m absolutely delighted that, having already had its sell-out run extended, it appears to be settling down for a long West End residency.

Frankenstein (National Theatre)

Probably the theatrical event of the year, and I’m sure it’s a show that will be appearing in many ‘best of the year’ pieces. Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller were incredible in Danny Boyle’s return to the UK theatre scene. I saw this with Jonny Lee Miller as Frankenstein’s monster and Benedict Cumberbatch as the doctor. They both shone, and perhaps because of that, the piece marked another triumph for the NT Live screenings, which allowed people to watch the cast in their alternate roles.

Journey’s End (Touring Consortium)

As a fan of anything related to the First World War, I was really looking forward to seeing this show. I certainly didn’t expect it to be as brilliant as it was. It was just spectacular. A masterclass in acting superbly staged and sensitively tackled. It was one of those shows that played on my mind for a long time afterwards, and remains one of the best adaptations I have ever seen.

Operation Greenfield (Little Bulb Theatre)

One of the few shows I saw twice this year. I was simply too good to only see once. Little Bulb have been quietly bubbling away for a while now, creating fun fringe pieces which challenge audiences and demonstrate the supreme talents of the small company. All actor-musicians.  The music in this piece is the thing you will take away with you more than anything. ‘Summer Flowers’ was a classic, ‘I am the True Vine’ was another, but ‘Zachariah in the Temple’, Operation Greenfield’s final triumph is the song that left you wanting to leap for joy.

Alvin Sputnik: Deep Sea Explorer (Weeping Spoon)

If this were a list from ten to one, then there is a very good chance that Alvin Sputnik would top that list. It is, to put it simply, my play of the year. I can’ do justice to it’s brilliance in a paragraph, so I’ll sum up. It is a one man show about a man who dives to the bottom of the sea in pursuit of the soul of Elena, his wife. The story was perfectly executed using a circular screen in centre stage, a wonderful moustache, and one of the best puppets I’ve ever seen. Alvin Sputnik was a white glove and a white foam ball. It was theatre at its very finest and something every theatre fan should see.

Translunar Paradise (Theatre Ad Infinitum)

Sometimes I am so grateful for twitter, as without the buzz I saw on there I would never have spotted this little gem. Theatre Ad Infinitum have created a beautiful little show which certainly gets my ‘Best Show at the Fringe’ award this year. A simple story about an elderly man mourning his wife, it used masks and an accordion so effectively that every single person in the audience was crying by the end. I believe the show is now on tour so is definitely worth a trip – though bring tissues. Many tissues.

One Man Two Guvnors (National Theatre)

It’s about to transfer to Broadway following an extended run at the National and a transfer to the West End, which demonstrates just how popular this show has been. James Corden shines in this traditional farce, and demonstrates that he’s not just ‘Smithy’. Richard Bean’s script is tight, with jokes packed into every single moment. The dialogue is funny, but the physical comedy and slapstick is even funnier. Using traditional Commedia set ups gives the whole thing a structure and clarity that is rarely seen in comedy. Certainly worth the hype it has received.

Othello (Crucible Theatre)

This is my favourite of Shakespeare’s plays, which means I’m hyper-critical and very difficult to please when it comes to new productions of it. As the first paragraph of my review demonstrates, I hold a grudge. So I was delighted to find that the Crucible’s adaptation of Othello was brilliant. It was performed in a traditional style, allowing Shakespeare’s language to do the majority of the work. Dominic West was the best Iago I have seen, revelling in the maliciousness of the character without ever becoming repellent, a difficult task indeed!

Dunsinane (RSC)

I think this was too quickly dismissed by many. In my view, this represents one of the best scripts I’ve read this year. The writing was really sharp, with relevant points and a pace that made the whole thing trip along quite nicely, despite the strong subject matter. Jonny Phillips was also brilliant in the role of Siward – every time I see him he’s great, which makes me think that anything he’s in next year is probably worth a look.

Wastwater (Royal Court)

As a fan of new writing (though looking over this list, you wouldn’t know it) I am a massive fan of Simon Stephens. This trilogy of tales were all really strong, in my opinion, and provided a lot of food for thought  about relevant issues and social situations. I loved the scenes in the hotel room, and the way in which what was being left unsaid was much more important than what was being presented. It was a really strong piece, and the script has given me many joyous hours of reading and rereading.

If this were a top fifteen, the next five would be…

The Wild Bride (Kneehigh Theatre)

The Heart of Robin Hood (RSC)

Richard III (Old Vic)

Our Private Life (Royal Court)

Frisky and Mannish: Pop Centre Plus (Frisky and Mannish)

The Theatre Punk Special Awards 2011

Best Tearjerker

Honourable mentions must go to Alvin Sputnik, and Love Letters Straight from the Heart, but the winner for this has to be Translunar Paradise by Theatre Ad Infinitum. A play so sad that I ran out of tissues, because I was sharing them with the two people sitting next to me. The term ‘not a dry eye in the house’ is used too often these days. Translunar Paradise demonstrates that sometimes that’s really true. Every single person in that audience was crying.

Annoyed that I paid the ticket price award

13 at the National. Annoying because I had an inkling it wasn’t going to be brilliant, but I like Mike Bartlett and keep ignoring the times he disappoints me. I’d like to think it won’t happen again, but…

Numb Bum Award

Richard III at the Old Vic. Kevin Spacey was spectacular, the show was brilliant. But did it really need to be three and a half hours long?!

Daily Mail baiting award

Marat/Sade at the RSC. Over the din of the anal rape you could still hear Quentin Letts grinding his teeth in fury.

Up and Comers award

Curious Directive. Your Last Breath at the fringe showed real promise , and a style that was reminiscent of Complicite. Definitely a company to watch next year.

 Worst of the Year

This is the one everyone really wants to know, right? Well my award goes to Woyzeck on the Highveld by Handspring Puppet Company. Just dreadful from beginning to end. Badly written, poorly structured, and perhaps the most surprising of all, the puppetry was fairly slapdash. Simply had no redeemable features.

Happy Christmas fellow Theatre Punks, and we’ll see you in the new year!

01/12/11

It’s Christmas. A time to eat drink and be merry. So what better show to start the festive season than spending some time with Robin Hood and his Merry Men.

Robin Hood has been a favourite character of mine for as long as I can remember. As a child my first love was…okay it wasn’t Disney’s fox version of Robin Hood, he came a close second to Virgil from Thunderbirds, but he was right up there. Since then I’ve always looked on the story of Robin Hood with warmth and fondness, so when the RSC announced their Christmas show, I was incredibly excited.

After last year’s sensational Matilda, so sensational I saw it twice, Robin Hood had some big shoes to fill. The marketing for Robin Hood hinted at a dark take on the normal pantomime fodder, with our eponymous hero running through a misty forest. Even the tagline ‘tread carefully through the forest’ spoke of unseen dangers at every turn; very different from the musical extravaganza we were treated to last year.

The Heart of Robin Hood takes on an almost Shakespearian format. Maid Marion, oppressed by her life in the castle, disguises herself as a man and steals away to the forest. There she meets Robin Hood and his men who, unlike stories we’re used to, is a bit of a brute. Instead of robbing from the rich and giving to the poor, Robin simply robs everybody, keeping all he steals for himself and his gang. From here the show takes on a familiar format, as Marion joins the outlaws and teaches Robin about virtue, honesty, and love.

However, while there is a formulaic structure to this tale, there are curveballs that many would not expect from a children’s Christmas show. The plots main conflict is derived from Prince John’s desire to slaughter two small children while he amasses an army to steal the throne while the king is away at the Crusades.

Martin Hutson is deliciously evil as Prince John, revelling in every heinous act the character commits while maintain an oily veneer that is great fun to watch. There was almost an element of Richard the third in his portrayal, as such open and disgusting villainy is very difficult to get right without lapsing into comedy, but Hutson seemed to manage it here.

James Mcardle as the eponymous Robin Hood is also a standout performance, portraying Robin as a little more slow-witted than the legend you’re used to, which made him all the more endearing. Mcardle is, of course, met blow for blow by Iris Roberts as Marion, who mixes comedy and pathos incredibly well and carries most of the story on her shoulders. Marion also has the honour of nailing my favourite line in the script, demonstrating Farr’s complete understanding of women. “I love him. He’s brutish, he’s rough, he’s emotionally unavailable. He’s perfect!”

It is a credit to the entire company that they all use their surroundings beautifully, mixing brilliant acrobatics with fantastic acting with seemingly no effort at all. Speaking of the surrounding, I must talk about the set.

Borkur Jonsson’s set is spectacular. A huge curved wall dominates the stage, so high it disappears behind the back wall and into darkness. Characters climb up it on ropes, abseil down it, slide down exuberantly, and use it’s crevices and hidden levels to enact various settings in the story. This set piece alone injects energy into the story, and makes every scene that much more exciting.

In addition to this, a small pool with hidden depths provides great moments of fun and levity, and a jaw dropping moment for fans of the male gender. (I won’t spoil it, but it’s when Robin’s Merry Men first appear. There’s a plastic goose involved. You’ll know it when you see it.) Add to that the forest that hangs from the ceiling, from which characters swing on ropes, musicians play in the tree tops and Robin Hood leaps on unsuspecting victims, and the hidden platforms and windows in the sliding wall, then this is simply the best set I’ve seen all year.

That said, this is not a perfect show. The script sags a little in the middle, and I don’t think the marketing for this show did it any favours. Who is this show aimed at? Is it a children’s show with dark moments, or a show for adults that children will happen to enjoy too? From the marketing so far, it seems the RSC isn’t really sure.

Also, while the set is just beautiful, it does mean that the performance space is very small – leading to lots of entrances and exits in a scene from minor characters. This is also true of chase scenes, wherein the space takes on a slapstick element as the majority of the chase goes on outside the performance space. It’s not something I found particularly distracting, but from the grumblings of a few around me in the interval I know it may not be to everyone’s taste.

But there are minor quibbles, and in my humble opinion, Icelandic director Gisli Orn Gardarsson has created a truly great Christmas show here. It has everything a family of any age could want. There is drama, comedy, romance, some fantastic fight scenes, and a darkness that is rarely seen from a piece aimed at a younger audience. It is for this reason more than any other that I’m sure some will give it negative reviews.

Adults in the audience glanced worriedly to their children as Prince John dangled a severed tongue for all to see, but the kids loved every second of it, and that is the secret of the success of this show. Not once did it patronise or talk down to any of the children watching it – instead it presented a fantastic story with, admittedly, some strong themes, in such a way that every child understood and enjoyed, even in the scary bits.

The show may not be as obviously perfect as last years Matilda, but The Heart of Robin Hood may still be the most fun you have in a theatre this Christmas – and not a panto dame in sight.

Early this year my boyfriend and I were discussing theatre, as I am wont to do. As a film critic he is perfectly at home in the world of cinema, but prior to meeting me the world of theatre was something he was largely unfamiliar with. I didn’t exactly take it upon myself to teach him, that would be horribly condescending, but I did want to share with him what had been, until I met him of course (ahem), my one true love.

We went to various plays, saw various dramas, both classical and modern, but eventually talk turned to musicals. It’s not surprising really- these are most peoples only exposure to theatre, with the big blockbuster musicals spending thousands on advertising, running for years and years and building a pretty hefty fan base along the way. When he was younger, James had seen a particularly dreadful musical that shall remain nameless, and was put off ever since. However, being a nice sort of fella, he humoured me and agreed to come along to a musical.

We started with Les Miserables. This was my favourite musical for many years and I maintain that it has the most beautifully written score on the West End. We saw the show when Alfie Boe was in the role of Jean Valjean, and I can’t think of a better way to introduce a theatrical newbie to musicals. Les Mis has lost none of the passion that made it such a smash-hit, and the story of the convict on the run, set against the backdrop of the French Revolution, remains compelling and rich, though the staging and sets have become quite dated.

The score is rousing and certainly never dull, tripping easily from ballad to an energetic call to arms. Because the score is so familiar, the cast do have a job making it their own, and some manage more successfully than others. Alexia Khadime as Eponine attempted a soulful rendition of On My Own which fell flat, the warbles and trills jarring against the classical style the rest of the cast were adopting, but she still gave an emotional performance, and no one could argue that by god the girl can sing. Stand out performances included Hadley Fraser, who brought me to tears as Javert, and Fantine, who in my opinion has never been played better than by Caroline Sheen, but I don’t think anyone in the audience would argue that the show belonged to Alfie Boe.

Boe is just a force of nature, belting out the tunes with seemingly no effort at all. He was just incredible. Not only was his powerful tenor voice perfectly suited to the role, but he managed to pack each moment he was on stage with such emotion that it was difficult to focus on anything other than him. He also holds back from unleashing his voice completely in order to blend into the cast better, which shows great restraint and made a big difference to the show as a whole.

There is a reason Les Mis has lasted the test of time, and it’s certainly worth another visit. My only regret is that certain elements are a bit dated, certain set pieces and sequences jarring slightly on someone who is used to pared down staging. Javert’s death is an excellent example of this, the rolling off the stage looking ugly and messy when his stance beforehand, arms raised to the heavens at the bridge rises behind him, could have been a perfect farewell to my favourite character. The barricades look a little old – but until I think of a suitable alternative I won’t slate it completely.

From an old favourite, to a new contender! Our trip to the New Theatre, Oxford was the first time I have seen Sister Act on stage, but have heard nothing but good things so thought it was worth a punt.

The show follows the same story as the hit film – Reno lounge singer, Delores Van Carter witnesses her boyfriend killing a man in the midst of a shady deal, so flees and it placed in the witness protection programme, hiding in a convent. There, she manages to transform a group of seemingly tone deaf nuns into a soulful gospel choir that brings new life to the church.

For fans of the original film, it is worth noting that none of the songs feature in this stage version. However for me, that is not a problem, in fact, it works in the shows favour. Alan Menken’s score is great fun, perfectly evoking the spirit of 1970’s disco and soul classics, where this is now set.

I really enjoyed this version of Sister Act. Cynthia Evro as Dolores was outstanding, belting out each song with power and emotion, and the cast seemed to work incredibly well together, lighting up the stage with energy and fun. I just couldn’t help thinking that touring this show must be one of the most fun tours around at the moment.

However, I seem to have missed a trick. This show was good, very good in fact, but anyone that had already seen this on the West End emerged decidedly glum. Apparently this is a pale comparison of the West End version, being incredibly restricted by the smaller stage. I didn’t notice this at the time, but thinking about it, certain elements did seem a bit cramped. There were also comments that Evro wasn’t as good as the West End’s Dolores, but once again, I didn’t have that comparison so loved it.

There’s always a risk of this kind of criticism when a show this big goes on tour, but I think for the most part these criticisms can be ignored. Of course the West End show is on a larger scale, but that doesn’t detract from what has been achieved here. There was a really warm reaction from the audience on the night I was there, and as we were leaving young and old alike were laughing and still dancing as they walked down the street – what more could you ask for?

So there you go – I don’t do musical reviews particularly often, but there’s a double bill for you. Two vastly different shows, showing my non-theatrical boyfriend the range of musicals on offer. See James? They aren’t all like Martin Guerre…I’ve said too much.

 

25/10/11

To me, Mike Bartlett is one of the most interesting playwrights working today. Okay, so he misses the mark frequently, and his style is one that many find irritating – but he’s creating new and innovative work in a period when people are increasingly relying on ‘safe’ old staples.

I was first introduced to his work with Earthquakes in London. It was hectic, anarchic, chilling at times, and descended into a completely ridiculous ending that had many leaving grumbling about a ‘flash in the pan’. I liked Earthquakes. Don’t get me wrong, it was flawed, but it showed promise from a young playwright trying to shine a light on modern Britain. It seems I wasn’t the only one, as Bartlett has now graduated to the Olivier theatre, and now holds the dubious honour of being the youngest playwright in ten years to have managed this.

13 takes on a similar structure to Earthquakes, following different characters as they attempt to grapple with living in modern Britain. This is a society on the brink of a big change – though what that change is lies in the hands of the characters Bartlett portrays. The first half is almost nightmarish in quality, opening with all the characters sharing a single and terrifying dream. Militant protesters, academics, politicians and greasy solicitors are all drawn to a mysterious man named John, who speaks simple sense – offering the chance to reject materialism and greed.  The second half is a dramatic shift as the prime minister addresses John and his followers, and their opposition to an American invasion of Iran.

To be quite honest, the storyline to this is incidental. Bartlett uses the play instead to address modern concerns. This London is incredibly realistic, and far too close for comfort. Public disorder and riots, social media sites, occupying protesters – all are addressed here as Bartlett tries to stress the importance of belief, not necessarily in a God but in something, anything. He argues that this is the reason we dream of a society on the brink of collapse, because we no longer stand united behind one common goal.

This is what Bartlett does best: mixing epic theatre with political insight. There is a whiff of Tony Kushner in his ability to boil down larger issues into his characters personal relationships, and his examination of modern society is unparalleled. I don’t think I was the only one who was decidedly unnerved by his examination of the uncertainly we all face, and the comparison between young people hungering for change and the entrenched elder statesmen of politics clinging to the status quo. There was something incredibly chilling about Bartlett’s world view and the fact that, when faced with such monumental change in the world, none of us really know where all this is going.

The opening to the play is nothing short of spectacular. Laurie Anderson’s ‘Someone Elses Dream’ whispers in your ear as a gigantic cube emerges from the darkness like a monolith. (I had never heard the song before, and assumed it had been written for this play. It is a terrifying and beautiful piece of music, and I’d urge you to seek it out.) The short scenes that follow quickly introduce all the key players and sets the ambitious and hectic pace that continues throughout the first half.

The set is really beautiful in it’s seeming simplicity, using the revolve perfectly and gently moving from one scene to another in a way that seemed totally natural. The cube is used in a variety of different settings, becoming a lawyers office, and opening up to reveal a dark steel structure inside. Additional set pieces are also used in an efficient and clever way – most notably the breakfast bar, which at times has three different scenes taking place on it simultaneously.

There were also some brilliant performances on offer from a company that’s difficult to fault. The standouts were Trystan Gravelle as the prophetic John, whose gentle performances made his speeches totally believable and compelling, and Adam James as the bitter and angry lawyer. Danny Webb also gives a sterling supporting performance as a Richard Dawkins type character, providing an atheist voice to counter a preaching of John. But this performance belongs to Geraldine James, who stole it for me as the compassionate Tory Prime Minister that lost her way.

This show has a lot going for it, and at the end of the first half, if I gave star ratings it would be a solid five, I even ran down to the NT bookshop to buy the play as I was so impressed with what I had seen, but unfortunately, I did not feel the same way by the end of the show. While the first half burst from the stage with energy and passion, the second half descended into a thirty-minute conversation around a table between only three people.

 It was a very good conversation. The writing was dynamic, the exchanges interesting and relevant as John, the Prime Minister and the Atheist grappled with an imminent war – but it bore absolutely no relation to the play I was watching in the first half. To me it seemed as though Bartlett had grown bored of the epic and decided to just write a domestic drama instead – highlighting all his key points in one handy conversation.

Sometimes I wish I could take Bartlett by the shoulders and shake him vigorously. He did this in Love Love Love, and he did it in Earthquakes. He creates a bit of theatrical magic, and then ruins it thirty minutes before the end. It is the football equivalent of scoring an own goal in extra time. There is something enigmatic and incredibly interesting about this play. It brings up the confusion and conflict we all experience in our lives, while shining a light on bigger political issues. I should have come out raving about this show, instead I left disappointed and frustrated, desperately wishing that Bartlett would learn how to finish what he started.

23/10/11

Marat/Sade is really due to be restaged. With riots in the streets only months ago, and camps springing up in protest of the financial turmoil brought upon us by those in positions of power, the idea of revolution, of a nation rising up against it’s ruling class, has never been more poignant. I was quite excited about this show, not least because it came with a warning email beforehand, a pretty high age limit, and the fact I studied this play at university and knew exactly what was in store.

Saying that, staging a production of Marat/Sade is not without risk. There is something inherently ‘60’s’ about Peter Weiss’s drama, and indeed the Artaudian Theatre of Cruelty style it is presented in. Also, this is the RSC, dahling – and as the Daily Mail has so readily demonstrated with it‘s ridiculously sensationalised summary of this show (which I won’t add a link to for reasons of intelligence and decency) this material still has the capability to shock, and a traditional RSC audience is not used to such outlandish scenes.

So let’s get this out of the way first. Yes, Anthony Neilson’s production is shocking. As someone used to every kind of theatre you can think of, I still balked at the image of a bishop getting sucked off my a buxom midget, or of a cross-dressing Marquis De Sade being tied up and repeatedly tasered, or even of Nicholas Day being stripped naked and gang raped by a giant dildo – but this isn’t shock for shock’s sake, there is a point to be made here.

Set in 1808 in a post revolutionary France, Marat/Sade is almost entirely a “play within a play”. This play is being staged by the inmates and nurses of Charenton Asylum, and overseen by the infamous Marquis De Sade (played charismatically by Jasper Britton). His play attempts to tell the story of the assassination of Jean-Paul Marat. Throughout, De Sade conducts many philosophical dialogues with Marat about the nature of revolution, and observes the proceedings with detached amusement as the disturbed individuals around him enact scenes of revolution and rebellion.

The most obvious change from the original piece is that Neilson has updated the action. It is still set in the 1800’s, but the physical look of the show has changed. While we are witnessing the fallout of the French revolution, there is a distinct Middle Eastern theme to Charlotte Corday’s costume as she kills Marat with a handgun, and patients are controlled via smart phones.

Speaking of the physical look of the piece, I have to mention Chahine Yavroyan’s lighting. I’m not normally one to dwell on scenography, preferring instead to take in the piece as a whole, but Yavroyan’s lighting was a triumph. It set the scene perfectly and used some mind-boggling effects at times – indeed, the moment when the whole theatre seemed to sway and move was so impressive I completely forgot about the spectacle on stage, staring dumbstruck at the balcony opposite me as it seemed to move and shift.

The staging too, is beautiful in it’s simplicity – a bare stage with bare iron ladders curving over the audience, creating a grid and an empty space to create any image the ever-changing story dictates. The whole thing is incredibly well designed and executed, allowing the patients of the asylum to loom over the audience on the ladders, hang off precariously at times, and use the runways to get up close and personal to those seated in the stalls.

The piece is performed admirably by the large cast, with all committing to the play’s strong demands from its actors. I was uncomfortable at first with the idea of an able-bodied cast doing out-dated impressions of patients with learning difficulties, but this aspect of the production is approached tastefully, and no one in the cast has slipped into caricature or cliché, instead portraying these patients subtly when necessary, but also allowing them the freedom to lash out when the script dictates it.

Jasper Britton, as I previously mentioned, stands out as De Sade who is the orchestrator of this event, but there are great performances from all, most notably Imogen Joel as a shivering and narcoleptic Charlotte Corday, and Lisa Hammond who gives a spectacular take on the Herald – revelling in every aspect of the play being performed, especially the more disturbing and sadistic acts.

And so we come to the main flaw in Neilson’s production, and it is a flaw that marred the entire production for me. It all looks very good, and it’s certainly shocking, but in focussing so doggedly on the shock-and-awe tactics employed here, Neilson seems to bypass the main points of the play. Marat’s freedom from oppression is something that could really speak to a modern audience, but it is a message that is lost in the hubbub around it. In the same way, the individualism that Sade champions is something a modern audience can identify with, but that message is only ever drilled home when something utterly appalling is happening on stage at the same time, so is lost in the ether.

This is an insightful play, but the sensationalist staging here means that anything I might have taken away from it was lost. Instead I left as many did, a bit shell-shocked, impressed at the grandeur and ambition of the piece, but totally confused about why it all happened.

17/09/11

On seeing the RSC’s Othello, directed by Kathryn Hunter, I swore never to see another production of Othello again. It is my favourite Shakespeare play, and she butchered it. Never again would I witness Shakespeare’s greatest villain laughing like a pantomime baddie as the curtain came down, never again would I see my favourite of Shakespeare’s stories ruined by someone who just didn’t get it…yet two years later, here I am.

I have never seen The Wire, so it was not the lure of Dominic West and Clarke Peters that drew me; but I did want to remedy the damage that Kathryn Hunter did, and pay another visit to my favourite play. Directed by Daniel Evans, this Othello is presented in traditional garb and traditional simplicity, but don’t for any second think this is boring. This is one of the most psychologically detailed and rich productions of the play I have seen – and I’ve seen a few!

From the opening scene we see Iago, a plainly spoken Northern soldier. He is not the spider we see in other adaptations of this text, nor is he some master chess player, moving the pieces to suit his own end – instead he is a negative, destructive bull of a man, who’s surface honesty is such, that it is totally unfathomable to anyone around him that he could be villainous. This is the only interpretation of Iago I have seen that drew laughs from the audience – even in moments of abject horror, the audience are complicit with Iago and are almost on his side, despite the horror of his actions.

West’s grip of the dialogue is such that nothing is thrown away, and we see the bitterness simmering just beneath the surface. The best example of this is when Emilia calls him ‘honest‘, drawing attention to his working class background among officers, he sneers in hatred, before gritting his teeth and barking out a sarcastic laugh, leering in at Emilia as he does it. It is a moment that sends a chill down the spine. West’s Iago moves from one reason to another in a bid to explain why he does what he does – he is angry at being passed over for officer, he hears rumour Othello has bedded his wife – but this Iago in such a way that even he isn’t really sure why he does it.

I’ve always found Othello a difficult role – he is incredibly intelligent and eloquent, charming the court and Desdemona’s father with the story of their courtship, yet he falls for Iago’s lies so easily. Peters is compelling, but I found his portrayal erratic. It is only because I’m so familiar with the text that I was aware of it, but he appeared to reword some of the lines, and in some cases, forget to say them altogether.

It seems Peters fell into the ‘Shakespeare trap’, as my old tutor used to call it, wherein he tried to force emotion through the dense dialogue, instead of allowing the text to do the work for him. I did see this play very early in the run, so I hope this is something he has now remedied, as I’m sure there is potential for a mind-blowing performance. Saying that, Peters had some moments where he rose to the challenge, particularly when playing against West, who seemed to bring out the best in Peter’s performance.

There’s also some fantastic work from the supporting players. Cassio, played by Gwylim Lee solves the problem of Othello’s jealousy coming from nowhere, by actually giving him something to be jealous of. Cassio is a smooth-talking, charismatic, Florentine gentleman, who clearly has chemistry with Desdemona. Even though that chemistry isn’t acted upon, it’s not at all surprising that Othello suspects the pair, and it’s not surprising that Iago selects him as an enemy. Iago lingers over the fact that Cassio, unlike himself, has never seen battle, and only knows of a soldiers life through books – yet he takes the officers job over the ‘honest’ Iago. Hell, I’d be looking for a bit of revenge if I were Iago!

Alexandra Gilbreath’s Emilia, the put-upon wife of Iago, is another little gem. Emilia lights up the stage, beautifully portraying the entire spectrum of emotions Emilia goes through as she skirts around West‘s barrelling Iago. The maternal relationship she has with Lily James’ Desdemona is really quite touching, and her guilt, as she gradually becomes aware of her role in her husbands scheming, is breathtaking. It’s just a fantastic performance of a role that is often overlooked.

Morgan Large’s set is deceptively simple, and incredibly well used. With a looming stone wall at the rear, and a beautifully constructed mosaic of the floor which subtly shifts throughout the performance, the space is left completely open and interchangeable. The production as a whole was incredibly strong throughout – in previous adaptations directors have focussed on the possibility of Iago’s latent homosexuality, or the idea that Othello did indeed bed Emilia, but Evan’s production does not make such presumptions. Instead this show presents Shakespeare’s text exactly how it is written, and no doubt not a million miles away from how it was originally performed, with its many verbal nuances and shades, open to any interpretation an audience member wishes to make. I am rarely disappointed when I visit the Crucible, and this is just another example of the great work they’re doing up there.

There are certainly ups and downs in this production, but it’s rare to get such clarity in a production of this play, and it’s worth the trip up north simply to witness the best portrayal of Iago I have ever seen.

07/09/11

I find Headlong a difficult company to be a fan of. For every Enron, there is an Earthquakes in London to convince you that the brilliance of Enron was a fluke; because of this, I had mixed feelings about Rupert Goold’s 9/11 retrospective, however, being a sucker for a site-specific piece, I thought I’d give it a go.

With contributions from 20 different writers, Decade takes an episodic structure, looking at 9/11 itself from a variety of angles and the way in which our world has changed since that fateful day. There is Headlong’s usual mix of movement, drama and striking scenography, as well as some fascinating insights into the effect that one day has had on all of us.

On arrival, we enter the performance space after a surly interview from US border control, we are then sent via a red staircase into a replica of the Windows on the World restaurant. There is something incredibly chilling about Miriam Buether’s design – particularly the walls on either side of the room as we look at the view as it would have been from the top of the World Trade Centre. Buether’s design is such that the audience around breakfast tables, while the cast move around on tables and on the high stage in the centre of the room.

The show is largely a collage of reactions to 9/11, but there are some stories that deviate slightly. The best part for me was Mike Bartlett’s contribution, about a journalist who cynically tracks down Osama Bin Laden’s killer and questions him – the pace is lightning fast and injected with humour and pathos in Bartlett’s usual inimitable style.

Ella Hickson’s contribution is also one of the standouts of the evening – telling the cynical tale of a gift shop salesman at Ground Zero, who exploits distressed and upset female tourists in order to convince them to go to bed with him. It illicited laughs of incredulity on the night I attended, and left me with an uncomfortable feeling as Headlong examine the nature of the Ground Zero tourism.

Perhaps the piece that stood out for me the most was the meeting of the widows, taking the form of ten short scenes mapping the progress each widow made since 9/11 – and in turn how the nation grieved with them. In the midst of this was a short scene from the waitress that served these widows, who discussed the fact that her birthday will never quite be the same again. This rang incredibly true for me, as my birthday is on September 11th, and many of this waitresses sentiments were things I have been heard to say these past ten years.

The episodic nature of the piece means that, inevitably, this is a bit of a mixed bag. Some sections I found moving and incredibly exciting to watch, whereas others felt a little unnecessary. Simon Schama’s piece embodied that for me, as an historian tries to place 9/11 in a historical context – it was lengthy, academic, and took on a lecture-like form that didn’t sit well with the rest of the show.

In terms of Rupert Goold’s direction there were a lot of positives. The use of the space was nothing short of brilliant. Each scene was treated with discretion and imagination, and Scott Ambler’s movement sequences took on an almost tribal-like quality at times, giving atmosphere to the piece and sometimes a pause to digest what we had just witnessed.

I must admit, I find this a difficult play to review. The piece was performed and directed incredibly well, but I do think that it was too long, and the episodic structure meant that the piece lacked clarity. The contributions of different writers was interesting, but with such a massive task to tackle, a single writer with a single vision would have been much more effective. At times I craved just a simple retelling of events – maybe there is room for exploration with regards to a verbatim piece?

I believe there is definitely a place in theatre to examine the lasting effects of 9/11, but tackling one or two of the issues raised would be a play by itself – looking at ten years of history in one play was just too ambitious. With dozens of different angles I simply felt bombarded, and the issues Headlong were trying to address became muddied and overwhelmed.