Posts Tagged ‘Shakespeare’

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!

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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.

26/06/11

Note:  This review is based on a preview performance, so the finished piece may slightly alter.

Having never read nor seen Richard III prior to this performance, I approached this production with timidity. Would the story make sense to me? Would the production assume I had prior knowledge, and would I become lost in the dense history of the play? Happily I had nothing to worry about, as Mendes has created a creatively brilliant and accessible production here.

Collaborating with Sam Mendes for the first time since American Beauty, Spacey’s portrayal of Shakespeare’s anti-hero has been hotly anticipated. The last production in the transatlantic Bridge Project, Spacey takes on the title role in Richard III, a role which allows Spacey to unleash his darker side and revel in the glorious anarchy Richard creates.

The first thing we see upon entering the auditorium is the word “Now,” projected in white on a black screen: a suggestion that the production is aiming for contemporary relevance, however, the design suggests a timeless quality. Catherine Zuber’s costume decisions seem firmly grounded in the 40’s and 50’s, while other elements are very modern – this is complimented by Tom Piper’s minimal but incredibly effective stage design, with the space expanding and contracting as the story requires, easily portraying the dank intimacy of a prison cell in one scene, a sprawling battlefield in another.

We are all aware of Mendes’ ability to create clean and beautiful imagery, and he certainly achieves that here, but can Spacey take on one of the Bard’s greatest villains? Kevin Spacey’s Richard is every inch the bottled spider Queen Margaret describes him as. His twisted and hunched body is supported by a fearsome looking leg brace on his left leg, his back hunched and his arm shrunken and useless. The decision to portray Richard in this manner is a stroke of genius, as it allows Spacey to sidle and creep around the stage like a predator stalking it’s prey – his gait gentle, but always deliberate. There is nothing grotesque about Richard – indeed, his disability (which I assumed to be Cerebral Palsey from the hints we were given) is barely noticed most of the time – that is to say, barely noticed by everyone but Richard.

Spacey’s Richard is never a panto-villain – rather than revel in the Machiavellian qualities we see in the character, Spacey focuses all of his decisions on Richard’s deep sense of self-loathing and isolation. He plays the role of the villain as though it is an inevitability rather than a joy – he doesn’t even seem particularly interested in power, but instead seems to revel in dragging those around him down to his level. As his mother (played admirably by Haydn Gwynne) shuns Richard for his tyranny, and informs him that she will support Richmond in the approaching fight, we see Richard’s true heart as his eyes fill with tears, his face heartbroken, before the mask of anger is fixed back in place and he resumes his villainy. It is a subtle and beautiful moment that explains Spacey’s Richard completely.

Spacey teases out the humour in each scene, supported by some fantastic choices in staging (I am particularly reminded of the video relay, wherein Richard, surrounded by a bible and costumed monks, comically plays up to the idea that he doesn’t want to be king.) and because of this we immediately understand his charm and charisma; the way he is able to manipulate those around him so effectively is certainly chilling. There are also some startling moments, from the sudden ferocity with which he turns on Buckingham with the line “I am not in the vein!”, to the wooing of Anne and his disbelief at his own audacity. It is an incredible interpretation, and a great achievement for Mr Spacey.

There’s an able supporting cast, most notably Chandler Williams as a deeply sympathetic Clarence to Chuk Iwuji’s Buckingham, who succeeds in making sense of the character’s journey from co-conspirator to doomed rebel. Gemma Jones is also spectacular as the prophetic Margaret, her eyes frightening and her voice full of grief and anger as she becomes a kind of Macbethian Wyrd sister in this production.

I would say this production is as near to perfection as a play gets, however, there is one thing that forbids me from saying that. The running time is made bearable by the spectacular action on stage. It maintains fluidity, momentum and drive throughout, with dramatic scene changes underscored by excellent sound and music, but does any play really need to be 3 hours 20 minutes long? The baffling decision to break for interval after more than two hours meant I was worriedly looking at my watch instead of being sucked into the action. I understand the desire to remain true to Shakespeare’s text, but for a modern audience that run time is almost too much to bear.

Mendes’s production is a thoroughly involving and gripping piece, and it ends the Bridge Project on a terrific high. Given its director and its casting, this was always going to be a hit and a sell out. Happily, it deserves to be. It is a shame that my favourite company in the world, Propeller, are doing their own version of Richard III at Hampstead theatre, as people will inevitably make comparisons, but these are two very different styles – go to Hampstead if you’d like a more anarchic version of this play, but for a classic take on the War of the Roses, it doesn’t get much better than this.

Programmes – £4

Running time – 3 hours 20 minutes (though as this was a preview, this may change slightly)

 

 

18/06/11

When we are thrown into the world of Dunsinane, Macbeth is all but defeated and the battle appears to be won. The soldiers we follow are trained in being a forest, and then thrown into a bloody skirmish. Peace takes hold of Dunsinane, but in Greig‘s adaptation, it isn‘t as simple as that.

Dunsinane follows the English officer, Siward, who seeks to impose order in Scotland after the death of Macbeth and Malcolm’s installation on the throne. He finds peace-keeping in the chaotic tribal run country fraught with hidden pitfalls.

When Siward orders his comrade to “Tell the men we’ll be in Scotland a little longer than expected.”, immediate parallels are drawn between 11th-century Scotland, and the current situation in the Middle East. The struggles faced by Siward, accompanied by an army ill-equipped to deal with the guerilla tactics of the native population, are fascinating to watch. The more the English officers and soldiers attempt to understand Scottish culture and the alien land they have been thrown into, the more hapless their efforts to tame it look.

The problems of negotiating a foreign land and its people are also wittily portrayed from the point of view of the common soldier, with one boys letters to his mother back home providing moments on levity and a stark insight into the morale of the troops.

This is definitely a character piece, and the performances are amazing. I first came across Jonny Phillips playing Iago at Riverside Studio’s – it was this performance that first ignited my passion for Shakespeare, so it was a delight to see him tackle this equally meaty role. He is glorious as Siward, conveying the bubbling frustration and confusion beneath his grizzled surface, while constantly trying to maintain his honour and principles.

Siobhan Redmond is superb as the formidable Gruach, the proud queen seeking to restore her son to the throne. While her accent is a little odd at times (which I find strange considering she is actually Scottish), she leaves the audience in no doubt that, while she is prisoner, she is the person who possesses the real power in Scotland.

In contrast to this, Brian Ferguson’s deadpan Malcolm is just hilarious. Sporting an oversized crown, his mannerisms and speech let the audience know immediately that he is not the man to unite the clans of Scotland, indeed, he seems to actively hate Scotland, and all the clan leaders to boot! He becomes a scene-stealer in any scene he finds himself in, peppering the otherwise depressing situation with sardonic witticisms that skewer Anglo-Scottish behaviour and highlight the futility of the situation.

The stage itself is wonderfully simple: a large Celtic cross perches on some stone steps, overlooking a rocky layered stage. This simplistic design allows for the fast pace we see throughout, with soldiers running through the Swan Theatre as though the battle is taking place just beyond the walls of the theatre. Live music is also handled brilliantly, with some very beautiful Celtic singing framing a lot of the action.

David Grieg’s Shakespearean sequel, expertly directed by Roxanna Silbert, is an outstanding addition to the RSC’s season. At 2 hours 30 minutes long, they appear to have cut a lot from the daunting 3 hour run time that many complained about at Hampstead Theatre; this seems to have created a much slicker play. The timing throughout this piece is wonderful, tripping delicately between comedy, tragedy and satire with the greatest of ease.

In a speech delivered cautiously by Malcolm, we come to realise that peace is not a default situation in this Scotland, but rather a rare freak occurrence, like a calm sea before the waves come. It is a depressing, but beautiful allegory, and one that demonstrates the futility of modern conflicts much more simply than any news report ever could.