154 posts categorized "Shakespeare" Feed

Review: The cleverly concise Hamlet, Trafalgar Studios 2

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Katie Stephens, Mark Arends, Tom Mannion, Hamlet Trafalgar Studios 2. Photo by Robert Workman.

I'm of the view that Shakespeare's plays generally benefit from a bit of trimming but Flute Theatre has put Hamlet on SlimFast and got its running time down to 90 minutes (without an interval). This idea excites, intrigues and concerns. On the one hand it's an opportunity to narrow the focus, distil the play's central dramatic and emotional threads while on the other you are in danger producing a disjointed, greatest hits version with just the well know speeches. Flute has added to the challenge by having cast of only six.

And what they have done is quite clever. The actors don't double up so much as borrow lines from others. For example, Laertes doesn't disappear back to school for the central section of the play but instead becomes Claudius's spy taking lines from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. It makes Laertes a constant presence while the absence of Horatio serves to alienate Hamlet leaving him brooding without a single ally or confidante.

This Hamlet pushes aside the politics and focuses on the grieving son whose sanity is stretched. Mark Arends, whom I last saw in the fabulous Angry Brigade at the Bush Theatre, plays the prince with a moping, softness and fragility, I could imagine him flopping around his untidy bedroom with the curtains closed, listening to Morrissey. There is also lyrical tone to his delivery which brings out the poet prince and yet there is something painful and brooding deep down that hints of darker things.

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Review: RSC's bonkers Cymberline, Barbican Theatre

B5774-cymbeline_review_hub.tmb-gal-1340When plays are rarely performed you do wonder if there is a good reason for it and Cymberline isn't one of William Shakespeare's best but the RSC has done a superb job with it, particularly given that they do the whole thing.

It's definitely a play of two halves. As we paused for the interval it was all going swimmingly. Queen Cymberline (Gillian Bevan), one of several gender swaps in this production, is angry that her only daughter Innogen (Bethan Cullinan) has married her lover Posthumus (Hiran Abeysekera) and has banished him but not before the newly-weds swap gifts - a ring for Posthumus and bracelet for Innogen. Innogen's evil stepfather (James Clyde) wants Innogen to marry his oafish son Cloten (Marcus Griffiths) but he also has deadly plans for the Queen.

Things take a turn for the worse for Posthumus who, having made his way to Rome, encounters Iachimo (Oliver Johnstone), a playboy, who in hearing about the lovely and chaste Innogen wagers that he can prove she isn't by tempting her to bed. Posthumus bets the ring that Innogen has given him and you can see roughly where all that is going. Anyway that brings us up to the interval with a lot of people feeling rejected/hurt/bereft while others are rubbing their hands together in glee.

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Review: RSC's King Lear, Barbican Theatre and why it's better than the Old Vic's

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Photo by Paul Stuart (c) RSC

The RSC's King Lear, which stars Antony Sher and is currently enjoying a season at London's Barbican Theatre, took me by surprise. Lear isn't a play I particularly like, despite repeated viewings in order to 'convert' my opinion. However, I think the RSC may have just made me a believer.

It comes hot on the heels of seeing the Old Vic’s King Lear production last month, starring Glenda Jackson, which had reinforced my bad feelings about the play. Seeing both versions in quick succession means comparisons are inevitable. Both are stripped down productions. The Old Vic has gone contemporary with a white screen, cheap plastic chairs and the cast dressed in modern street clothes (much has been made by critics of Glenda Jackson’s cardie).

The RSC opted for a vast brick wall as a backdrop and the odd prop but the royal family at the start are opulently dressed - long robes embellished with gold embroidery although with lines that had a cleaner, modern spin.

Lear wears a heavy fur coat and is carried onto the stage with his golden throne encased in a glass box, flanked by attendants carrying huge golden discs as if he floats, celestial in a higher universe. Immediately you see a King for whom appearance, status and the appropriate deference is intrinsically linked to power and rule. It sets the scene for a man who wants to have his cake and eat it. He doesn’t want the responsibility of kingship, the cares of rule but he doesn't want how he is treated or lives to change.

This production opened in the summer in Stratford, long before the American election but the way Lear protests when he isn’t treated with the respect he feels he’s due made me think of the thin-skinned, president elect Donald Trump.

It is ironic that the RSC production with its less modern setting should resonate with current political figures while the modern take in the Old Vic production felt contemporary only in look. The lack of stateliness made Glenda Jackson’s Lear less petulant and entitled and, on reflection, less understandable.

In fact one of the strengths of the RSC production is that all the key characters had clearly defined story arcs and took you on the journey with them.

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Review: Glenda Jackson in King Lear, Old Vic

The stage at the Old Vic is being 'cleaned' as we take our seats and a few of the cast dressed in what looks like their regular street clothes amble around chatting. It is brightly lit and you can see spare lighting rigs at the side of the stage and there isn't much by way of set and props except a white screen and a row of cheap plastic chairs.

It feels like we've walked in on a rehearsal rather than a full blown production and this becomes a bit of problem once the play has started. While there are no scripts to be seen and the actors are definitely in full flow, the direction and sparseness of the stage make it feel, to use PolyG's words, like a glorified rehearsed reading.

4371After about an hour it kicks in although by that I mean it has its moments. Rhys Ifans lights up the stage as a super-hero costumed Fool although as a result his appearances feel all too brief. Harry Melling too feels compelling as Edgar in fact it is the scene where he sees his blinded father for the first time where I was most moved. It is interesting that director Deborah Warner has chosen to distinguish between Edgar and his brother Edmond (Simon Manyonda) by making one a fitness addict and the other a chocolate addict and it is the bad brother that is into exercise.

Jane Horrock's stalks the stage as the painted-on-jeans, high-heels wearing Regan and Sargon Yelda's Kent brilliantly switches between accents as his disguise which works really well.

But this is Glenda Jackson's show or at least it should be. She gives an energetic performance that belies her frail looking frame but it isn't enough to captivate and ultimately engage.

She is a bawdy King Lear, hanging out drinking with 'his' knights in fact this a bawdy production that crudely exposes the sexual innuendo and references. Bare flesh is exposed: Edmund bears his buttocks to the audience while masturbating over his plans to rob his brother of his inheritance, shirts are taken off for fights and and Edgar strips to his birthday suit and runs around, later wearing just plastic bags as pants (I noted the Lidl logo).

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Review: The Donmar's all female The Tempest, King's Cross

TEMPEST_1263x505If you saw the Phyllida Lloyd-directed all female Henry IV or Julius Caesar at the Donmar Warehouse in Covent Garden you'll have an idea of the tone and style of The Tempest which completes a trilogy of plays for the company. If you didn't see them then then the first thing to know is they were powerful pieces with a modern grit and contemporary edge.

The biggest difference between the first two plays and The Tempest is the venue. The Tempest opens at a temporary space outside King's Cross station which is bigger and more spacious (more loos) and has the stage surrounded on four sides by the audience. Julius Caesar and Henry IV are being revived as part of the run at King's Cross.

Each of plays is set in a woman's prison*, a device that is used fully throughout rather than being a flimsy artistic contrivance. In fact it works particularly well with The Tempest; Harriet Walter plays a prisoner serving a long sentence who is playing Prospero. As she recites Prospero's explanation of how he ended up on the island it is difficult not to see it as a sort of incarceration. The setting also highlights other imprisonments - Ariel's by Sycorax, Caliban by Prospero (for the crime of trying to harm his daughter Miranda) and then the magical imprisonment of the nobles shipwrecked on the isle at Propero's command. At the end there is liberty for most but perhaps not not all.

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Review: Ralph Fiennes is Richard III, Almeida Theatre

RIII_IMAGE_1470x690_72As soon as I stepped into the Almeida auditorium and saw the stage I got the reference. There was a grave-sized earthy hole around which there were spotlights and actors dressed in white, forensic-style jump-suits who were excavating bones. The last to be lifted is a twisted spine which is a macabre sight and sets the tone.

The grave excavation is a nice merging of history and fiction and is used to book end Rupert Goold's production. It was also a promising start to what is one of my favourite Shakespeare plays.

When Ralph Fiennes' Duke of Gloucester appears for the 'winter of discontent' speech it is a slow, deliberate delivery. He makes sure he has everyone's attention, holding people's gaze. (I've embedded a video of another speech at the bottom of the post to give you a taste.)

His Richard is a snake, slithering slowly, fixing you in his eyes so that you daren't look away but a snake which has a sudden deadly bite. I've seen productions where he's played as a loveable villain - dangerous but charming. There is no such charm here. He is pure evil, prone to occasional violent outbursts, particularly towards women when his violence turns sexual. He is a coward in that respect. He's not a hands-on murderer as he is sometimes portrayed, he leaves that to others, instead he picks his fights with those he can easily overpower.

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Review: A Midsummer Night's Dream, Southwark Playhouse or when Stan went on stage to play a flower #7actordream

Midsummer-1At the end of this promo video for Go People's A Midsummer Night's Dream an actor says that 'everyone single person will come away with a slightly different experience' and they weren't kidding. I've had actors deliver lines at me, ad lib lines at me, throw stuff at me, sit next to me, even fall in my lap but I've never been dragged on stage to play a part before. Not until last night at the Southwark Playhouse anyway.

This isn't A Midsummer Night's Dream for purists, Go People have added an extra premise that they are a company of seven actors attempting to play all 17 parts. They also only have about four props between them but are going to give it a go with a bit of imagination and imagining from the audience.

When Puck (Melanie Fullbrook) is asked by Oberon (Ludovic Hughes) to fetch a wild pansy to use as a love potion, in lieu of a prop flower Puck grabbed me. So there I am in the middle of the stage with Oberon gripping my hands and intently telling me all about how he discovered said love potion. At least I think that was the speech he was delivering, at the time I was more concerned with the fact that I was actually on the friggin' stage and feeling just a teeny bit self-conscious.

But it didn't end there. I was whisked off to wait back stage by Puck while the next scene was in progress.  Then Puck said something like 'have fun with it' and lead me back on stage to 'work my flower magic'. Randomly waving your hands sort of works for a magic potion being administered, doesn't it? Later Oberon assisted by holding my hand and moving it in a delicately, elegant gesture. And I just wanted to face palm thinking 'yep that would have been better'.

Now at this point I should add that earlier we'd been asked to imagine there was a large oak tree in the middle of the stage which all the actors subsequently stepped around when moving from one side to the other. So when I was excused from my flower magic duties I felt I should carefully avoid the imaginary tree on my way back to my seat, in keeping with the spirit of things, which seemed to go down quite well. 

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Possibly my favourite Hamlet... so far... thanks to the RSC and Paapa Essiedu (Royal Shakespeare Theatre)

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Paapa Essiedu as Hamlet for the RSC 2016. Photo (c) Manuel Harlan

I've seen Hamlet more times than any other play. I think my most recent trip to see Paapa Essiedu as the prince - directed by Simon Godwin for the RSC in Stratford - was my 15th different production.

In a good Hamlet I'll see something I haven't seen before or it will make me think about the play in a slightly different way. I've seen some really, really good productions but there is usually one or two characters or something else that hasn't quite worked for me. Ophelia is often a problem, she's a difficult character to make convincing. But I think this RSC version has come very close to getting it all right.

Production spoilers warning

First of all, the key characters felt rounded, fully formed and fleshed out, understandable and convincing - from Hamlet to Horatio. Simon Godwin has set the play in modern day Africa and stuck to that setting and culture throughout but crucially without any awkward contrivance. When Hamlet and Laertes fight armed with two sticks, the poisoned blade is concealed within one of them. It works brilliantly.

But I'm jumping ahead to the end of the play. Paapa Essiedu is a young Hamlet which is always more agreeable and Simon Godwin opens with his graduation. He's with his friends, happy and no doubt feeling on top of the world and a world away from Elsinore where we see him next sombrely following his father's glass coffin. He is visibly upset when we see him in the throne room with his mother and newly crowned uncle  - Ben Whishaw was similarly snotty and teary - and you feel his grief, shock and bewilderment about the turn of events.

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Tom Hiddleston's next Shakespeare role: some speculation and wishful thinking

Ntlive_template-large_0Catching up with BBC Radio 4's Front Row podcast this week there was an interview with Tom Hiddleston in which he was asked about whether, having already played the likes of Coriolanus, Prince Hal and Henry V whether there were any other Shakespeare characters he'd like to take on.

His answer was:

"I do have my eyes on something...you'll find out very soon, I think."

Now if that doesn't give us an excuse for excitement and speculation then I don't know what would. We can't assume stage, although that it what I'm keeping my fingers crossed for but who will he play?

He can tick off history and Roman tragedy from the canon. Obviously there is a Hamlet sized hole in his CV but is theatreland ready for another big starry Hamlet hot on the heels of Benedict Cumberbatch and with Andrew Scott is playing the Dane early next year at the Almeida? It's an obvious choice - a bit obvious and predictable - but my second thought was a comedy: I could see him playing Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing.

I've subsequently done a bit of Googling and found this interview with Kenneth Branagh from 2014 in which he hints that he'd love to direct Tom in Much Ado. Ken's theatre production company currently has a residency at the Garrick, so there is that.

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Review: Ivo Van Hove's epic Kings of War, Barbican Theatre

9731_xFour and half hours of Shakespeare performed in Dutch (with English subtitles)? With Ivo Van Hove directing I rushed to buy a ticket. 

Bart van den Eynde and Peter van Kraaij have combined Henry V, Henry VI and Richard III into one epic play (there is also a smidgen of Henry IV part 2 at the beginning) which Van Hove has set in what looks like a war bunker.

There are three corridors (of power) that feed the bunker and a camera* follows the actors when they disappear down them, the feed appearing on a large screen at the back of the stage. Some of it is obviously pre-recorded - as much as I would love to believe they had a flock of sheep back stage - some of it is live. There are also cameras hidden on stage which film the action from angles not easily seen by the audience.

Kings of War begins quite slowly. Van Hove's naturalistic directing style has the actors in office mode. After the initial coronation scene which is done without speeches just a red carpet and a train of followers, in a device that will be repeated, there is little ceremony. Henry V (Ramsey Nasr) is portrayed more as a military leader at work than king, around him people sit at desks carrying out their usual tasks, finishing writing a sentence before responding to a question.

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