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May 2014

Review: It's the angry, bloody and violent Hamlet at the Riverside Studios

Preview-Hamlet-010 (2)
Adam Lawrence as Hamlet. Production photo by Adam Trigg

I normally avoid fringe productions of Shakespeare like the plague. I've seen a few too many dire versions but a couple of years ago there was a superb Titus Andronicus in a pub in Camden. Hiraeth Artistic Productions were behind it which is why, when an invite to see their Hamlet at the Riverside Studios pinged into my inbox, I didn't hesitate.

First it gets thumbs up because they've trimmed back the play to just two hours and 15 including an interval. Definitely nothing extraneous here. In fact it's almost (almost) a 'Hamlet - the best of'. I'm not sure how much you would understand if you were a first-timer but, for those of us who can boringly reel off a list of Hamlets we've seen, that didn't matter.

Like Titus is has a contemporary setting and is predominantly a young cast. No 33-year-old Hamlet here, Adam Lawrence who plays the Dane has a date of birth in the 90s (more bonus points). It's set in a Liverpool prison and opens with Hamlet being stripped of his street clothes, searched and put into regulation grey track suit and velcro trainers.

This is Shakespeare delivered with a thick scouse accent although Getrude (Joyce Greenaway) is Irish and Hamlet peevishly mimmicks her in the closet scene. It is fuelled by the testosterone of a predominantly male environment and a sprinkling of modern expletives which, in the prison context, works.

Not all of the concept does. The prison staging at times feels contrived and out of place; it's used as more than a "Denmark's a prison" metaphor to dismiss it as a thematic back drop but, like with a good action film, there is enough other good stuff going on you can easily suspend disbelief and questioning of logic.

In fact in some scenes it works really well.  The players don't 'arrive' in Elsinore rather it is a prisoners therapy session, full of goading and teasing so that the Hecuba speech is delivered reluctantly as suppressed emotions and memories bubble to the surface. When the players perform in front of Hamlet's uncle Claudius and mother it is done with script in hand, microphones and a mixture of nonchalance and embarrassment.

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Review: Ten Women at the Ovalhouse Theatre

Ten Women is a work in progress and therefore to call this a review is a little unfair. Written by Bethan Dear it isn't so much a drama as a presentation of ideas about women and body image.

The group of women use a mixture of performance styles. For example, they take it in turns reading excerpts from a diary cataloguing pre-pubescent thoughts about their  body through to when they are in their late 20s, then there are mantras about particular moments of empowerment and rituals which are acted out by one or two while recited by another.

It isn't subtle, it's a didactic piece and a gentle introduction to feminist thinking for the uninitiated but it is done with fun and vigor. The message is clear, women's bodies have been hijacked by the world and this is a call to arms to reclaim individuality and naturalness without guilt.

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What to expect from 3 starry Shakespeare plays: Martin Freeman, Maxine Peake and Benedict Cumberbatch

David Garrick as Richard III in 1745

It's rare not to have a least one star turn taking on one of Shakespeare's famous leads but there are already three schedule for the next 15 months to get excited about. So what do we know so far?

Martin Freeman is first up as Richard III directed by Jamie Lloyd at the Trafalgar Studios. Lloyd brought us James McAvoy in Macbeth last year and it was a contemporary, frenetic, brutal and physical production. In the same season he cast Simon Russell Beale and John Simm in the dark and sinister black comedy The Hothouse.

Freeman said in an interview on Radio 4's Front Row (17 April, podcast available via iTunes) before rehearsals began, that he hoped this production would follow in the footsteps of Macbeth and The Hothouse in being fast and bloody.

He said he'd received Lloyd's "cut of the play" and commented: "I think he wants a really exciting night at the theatre, he doesn't want a laborious, professorial penance."

Rehearsals are now underway for the production, which opens in July, and early whispers suggest a tightly-trimmed script.

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Who I would add to @Polyg's W-list of actors still to see on stage

Polyg has posted a fab list of five actors she'd love to see on stage but hasn't yet, which got me thinking. I ran a similar list back in 2011 which included men and women (can now tick off Julie Walters) but it is growing. Poly's list is all male (coincidence or is there a list of actresses to come?) and I'd say a big yes to everyone for the reasons she states and add:

Andrew Garfield won awards for his stage Romeo early in his career and appeared on Broadway two years ago but 2006 was the last time he trod the boards in London. He's got such a varied body of film and TV work under his belt but stands out, for me, in those roles which require a deep emotional sensitivity. His performances have made me laugh and smile but have also had me sobbing and I think he'd be pretty special to see perform in the flesh.

Tilda Swinton returning to the stage would get me very, very excited. She spent her early career with the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh and RSC and since then has gathered such an eclectic and interesting mix of screen roles to her name. I could see her doing something avant garde with a subtle yet powerful magnetism.


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The bonkers Handlebards head out on tour

I'm only sorry I'm not going to see them perform but you have to hand it these four chaps who are touring around the country on bicycles performing A Comedy of Errors and Macbeth (pictured below l-r Callum Brodie, Tom Dixon, Paul Moss & Callum Cheatle).

The Handlebards will cover 2,000 miles perform at nearly 50 venues and apparently they've actually done some cycle training this year. Check out their website for all the tour dates and if you see them on the road make sure you wave. And, even better, go and see them and let me know what they are like.


What's the collective noun for a group of actors who've played Hamlet?

Sam Mendes, in a DVD commentary referred to a scene in the Bond movie Skyfall as the 'Hamlet scene' because it involved three actors who'd all played Shakespeare's Dane: Ralph Fiennes, Rory Kinnear and Ben Whishaw.

I was reminded of this when listening to James McAvoy being interviewed on Radio 4's Front Row about the new X-Men film recently. McAvoy gets screen time with Patrick Stewart and the presenter John Wilson asked if they discussed playing Macbeth to which McAvoy said they did. He then went on to point out that they weren't the only two actors in the film to have played the Scottish King on stage as Ian McKellen has also taken on the part and Michael Fassbender is just about to in a film version.

It is further significant because McAvoy and Stewart plays the younger and older version of the same character in the film as do Fassbender and McKellen.

Now I'd love to know if Fassbender asked for advice and what McAvoy and Stewart discussed. I'd also be curious to know if anyone can beat four actors appearing in a film who've all played the same Shakespeare character?

As to the collective noun I reckon you'd have a worry of Hamlets and an ambition of Macbeths but I'm sure there are far, far better words.


First, much better, suggestion via Kathryn on Twitter is a dither of Hamlets

Review: Australian play double bill of Holiday and The Eisteddfod at the Bussey Building

L-R Paul Woodson and Andrew Buckley in Raimondo Cortese's Holiday

Haven't seen many Australian plays but those I have seen have all been slightly surreal and this double bill is no different.

Holiday by Raimondo Cortese has two men in speedo's sat beside a children's paddling pool chewing the fat and occasionally breaking into baroque love songs. (I admit I did have to do a bit of internet research because I hadn't a clue what they were singing.)

The conversation topics or remarks they make to each other are random in the way a casual and relaxed conversation might go. Sometimes philosophical, sometimes banal and quite ordinary. It is difficult to make any sense or purpose to it other than to demonstrate both how ridiculous and interesting man can be.

Nonetheless it is a highly amusing piece. With strong Australian accents and a mastery of comic timing actors Paul Woodson and Andrew Buckley can make the most anodyne observation funny. Not being able to identify the songs or the lyrics, the musical interludes added little for me other than demonstrating good singing voices but the laughs more than made up for it.

The second piece, The Eisteddfod by Lally Katz tells the story of agoraphobic brother and sister Abalone (Paul Woodson) and Gerture (Louise Collins) who spend their days living in a fantasy world of their own making which includes teaching german, a relationship breaking down and rehearsing Macbeth for the Eisteddfod which has, as a prize, a one way ticket to Moscow.

Brother and sister role play, sometimes as lovers, sometimes as their parents sometime unrelated characters and it is obvious that much of it familiar and has been played out time and time again. At one point Gerture demands a 'scene' that will comfort her.

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The curious case of the Antigone running time

PhotAntigoneoThe running time for Antigone at the Barbican is an hour and 4o minutes straight through. Not remarkable in itself except that it isn't being staged until March next year.

How do they know?

I mean running times on some theatre websites can be horrendously out even when the play is actually on. Ok I know theatre isn't like film and there is a fluidity in live performance that will mean running times can never be precise but the Antigone example is intriguing.

There may be a simple explanation, that director Ivo van Hove has staged it before elsewhere although I can't find a reference. And, on the Barbican website, it does say this version has been translated "afresh" which implies it it new.

Ivo van Hove directed the current production of A View From The Bridge at the Young Vic which is two hours straight through. Not only has the text been trimmed but apparently, during rehearsal, every gesture was examined to determine whether it was necessary. For example, when Bea is asked the time during the play she doesn't check her watch, she just gives the time.

Of course I'm curious about whether he will take a similar approach with Antigone - A View From The Bridge is certainly a powerful piece because of it. But equally I'm curious about how much of a guide the running time is. Will they be shaving off bits of the play and performance if it comes in at one hour and fifty during rehearsal? And what about if it ends up shorter?

These are probably stupid questions to those familiar with the whole theatre production process so please do enlighten me. I can add it to my very slowly growing 'behind the scenes' knowledge. Otherwise I'll just have to wait and time it in March.

Review: Nick Payne's Incognito at the Bush Theatre


Amelia Lowdell in Incognito. Photo by Bill Knight.

The title of Nick Payne's latest play (gosh he's prolific) gives a hint of its themes primarily the hidden self. Incognito is an exploration of the sense of self, whether through our own perceptions, relationships or straightforward biology and whether it is truthful.


There are three stories interwoven and presented like overlapping jigsaw pieces, boundaries blurring as the four cast members stride in and out of scenes with only differing accents to distinguish the multiple characters they play.

Two of the stories are set in the fifties. In one After conducting his autopsy, Thomas Harvey steals Einstein's brain to use for research.  In the other Henry's life is changed fundamentally after brain surgery leaves him with only a short term memory.

The third, set in the present, follows a clinical neuro-psychologist Martha who is struggling to cope with her patients and with her own radically changing life choices.

Each of the central characters is in some way hidden from their self and it is interesting how they cope with that. Harvey is obsessed with his research to the point where it takes over his life to the exclusion of most others. Henry's life has become frozen at the time in which he was about to go on honeymoon and he can't remember anything outside that for longer than a few minutes.

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Review: RSC's Bring Up The Bodies or Thomas Cromwell part 2

Ben Miles as Thomas Cromwell. Photo by Keith Pattison

Found out just before seeing Bring Up the Bodies that it is not in fact a sequel to Wolf Hall but based on the middle book of what will be Hilary Mantel's trilogy telling the story of Thomas Cromwell. (Presumably the success of first two stage adaptations means a play of the third book is a certainty?)

So I was a bit premature in warning Poly that it probably wouldn't end well for Cromwell in this second play. The fact that there is a third book is a bit of plot spoiler for those unfamiliar with his story. But it does mean you get to enjoy Ben Miles as Cromwell while the going is good for a bit longer.

Bring Up The Bodies picks up where Wolf Hall leaves off. Cromwell has risen to high status in Henry VIII's court but Anne Boleyn, having failed to produce a male heir, is losing favour and the King already has his eye on Jane Seymour as Queen number three.

The narrative follows the demise of the Queen, the courtship of Jane and Cromwell's part in it all. I'm not sure how much historical fact fed into the trial of Anne Boleyn but it certainly leaves you with plenty to mull over in the 'did she or didn't she' debate.

In the same vein as Wolf Hall there is a lot of politics going on in the back ground but Cromwell remains at the heart of it all growing in wry charm, always managing to stay just one step ahead and all the more lovable for it. The success of the play is in the fact that I really started worrying for him. The jeopardy of those in the Tudor court is ever present from simple banishment to full on gruesome traitors death, I often wonder how anyone with a tongue in their head survived.

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