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Posts Tagged ‘William Shakespeare’

This is amongst Shakespeare’s most moralistic plays. Vienna has degenerated into a debauched city and its Duke decides to take a break, putting Angelo in charge, though he is hovering in the background, monitoring activities in disguise as a friar. Well, it would’t be Shakespeare without someone in disguise. Angelo takes a no-mercy approach and condemns Claudio to death for having sex with his girlfriend outside marriage. Claudio’s sister Isabella delays her entrance into the nunnery to plead for her brother, when we see Angelo misuse his power in a way we now see daily.

This is filleted to a 75-minute version in period costume – a short, conventional but perfectly good staging of the play. A coup d’theatre then propels us forward to the present time, where the Duke appoints Isabella rather than Angelo, who is now Claudio’s brother, and we embark on a even more filleted 65-minute version, all mobile phones and other contemporary references, where the protagonists have changed gender. Josie Rourke’s production is both very clever and very timely.

Pete McKintosh’s simple set facilitated the show propelling forward 400 years in a matter of seconds, with the emphasis on costumes, lighting and music / sound. Hayley Atwell and Jack Lowden are both excellent in their role reversals, and there are fine performances from Sule Rimi as Claudio, Nicholas Burns as the Duke, Matt Bardock as Lucio, Adam McNamara as the Provost and Raad Rawi as Escalus. Of course, everyone is required to exhibit different period behaviours, and Jackie Clune and Rachel Denning lead their band of prostitutes doing so brilliantly.

It does make an interesting and important point – how we treat the same situation differently depending on the sex of the protagonists, but it wasn’t as emphasised as I was expecting, and I did wonder if it was worth such a radical reinvention to make the point. Still, I much admired both the idea and its execution.

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The perfect start to Kwame Kwei-Armah’s tenure at the Young Vic – a great big populist hit. This 90-minute musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, which loses much of the verse but none of the story, is bursting with energy and fun, joyous and uplifting.

It’s a musical comedy, so the spotlight is on the antics of Olivia’s uncle Sir Toby Belch, his friend Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Olivia’s maid Maria and the trick they play on her steward Malvolio (the contemporary take on yellow stockings and crossed garters is delicious!), but the love triangle of Orsino pining for Olivia whilst she’s attracted to Viola as Cesario who is herself infatuated with Orsino is handled brilliantly. When Viola’s supposedly dead brother Sebastian turns up, and Malvolio uncovers the plot against him, the resolution is rather moving, despite the comedy.

Designer Robert Jones has built a whole Notting Hill street (with the Duke of Illyria its pub!) in the Young Vic auditorium; an absolutely brilliant set. The eleven Shakespearean characters are supplemented by a thirty strong community chorus who fill the stage and are so good you’d never know it wasn’t a professional one. Shaina Taub’s score is fairly vanilla pop, as is Lizzi Gee’s choreography, but they both do the job and its well sung, played and danced.

The performances are outstanding, led by Gerard Carey as Malvolio, one of the finest comic performances I’ve seen in a lifetime of devotion to theatre. Gabrielle Brooks is simply brilliant as Viola / Cesario, handling the frisson with Orsino superbly and her reunion with Sebastian movingly, with beautiful vocals. Natalie Drew and Rupert Young are both superb as Olivia and Orsino. The comic duo of Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek are finely played by Martyn Ellis and Silas Wyatt-Barke, and there’s a lovely Feste from Melissa Allan, who sings beautifully.

Oskar Eustis co-directs this captivating piece with Kwei-Armah, who co-conceived it with Taub. A treat.

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This play was made for a stage like the Olivier and Simon Godwin’s excellent production, superbly designed by Hildegard Bechtler, makes great use of the space. Add in a set of great performances and you have a fine A&C.

It’s modern dress but feels timeless. They make great use of the revolve and drum to create some strikingly different settings from Rome to Alexandria and at sea. It starts tentatively, but when it gets into its stride it’s captivating, with the political & military and the relationships given equal attention and sitting comfortable together. Intimate scenes between Anthony and Cleopatra and battle scenes at sea and on land both work superbly, and Michael Bruce’s music adds much to the atmosphere.

Sophie Okonedo’s Cleopatra is very much in control, feisty and determined, but palpably in love with her man. She shows us many facets of Cleopatra in a passionate performance which swept me away. Ralph Fiennes has great presence as Anthony and also shows us a multi-faceted character who’s clearly torn between his loyalty to Rome and his love of Cleopatra, and when he’s with her he behaves like he’s the luckiest man in the world. There are so many fine performances around them that it’s impossible to mention them all; an excellent ensemble indeed.

When you have a bit of a Shakespeare habit, as I do, it’s rare to see something as fresh as this. Terrific.

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For Mark Rylance’s return to Shakespeare’s Globe, as Iago, he’s paired with American actor Andre Holland as Othello, in a pared-down production by his wife, and the Globe’s former Director of Music, Claire van Kampen, and it’s good to report its success.

With just twelve actors, running at a little over 2.5 hours, there are cuts in both lines and roles, some doubling up and two actresses play male roles, but none of these changes seem to damage Shakespeare’s tragedy. If anything, by concentrating on the six main characters the story has more focus. Holland is a fine Othello, with his accent further emphasising the character’s difference. Rylance shows us a multi-faceted Iago, with touches of flippancy and humour, often speaking and moving around quickly, with makes him seem even more villainous. Emilia, too, gains in significance. It has more pace, without damaging the intimate scenes. Jonathan Fensom’s design concentrates on the costumes, which are excellent, so the performances can breathe in a largely unadorned space.

Holland and Rylance make a fine pairing, but there are other great performances too. Sheila Atim’s superb Emilia is particularly good in the final scene where she realises the role her husband has played in her mistresses demise, and she closes the show singing beautifully. Jessica Warbeck as Desdemona handles her emotional roller-coaster well, and has great chemistry with her husband. Aaron Pierre is a passionate Cassio, a professional stage debut no less. The characterisation of Roderigo is unusual, highly strung and effete, but it made him more interesting, and Steffan Donnelly played him very well.

After the audience ruined my evening at The Two Noble Kinsmen recently, I said that this might be my last visit to Shakespeare’s Globe. The theatre gods must have been listening, as last night’s audience was respectful and rapt, with moments where you couldn’t hear a pin drop, erupting in appreciation at the end. This was indeed a fine night at the Globe.

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I’ve seen some amazing actors play Lear, seven of them knights of the realm, but this is the first time I’ve seen the same actor play him twice, only ten years apart (though I’ve seen five more Lear’s since the last time, not counting the one from Belarus and the one with sheep!). With Ian McKellen in his eightieth year, he’s the oldest, and the closest to the character’s age. I regret not booking to see this in Chichester. My thinking was that I’d seen McKellen’s Lear. I suspect it would have been better (and cheaper!), but it’s still a must-see in the West End, and I now realise how flawed my thinking had been.

They’ve put a platform through the centre of the stalls, leading to an entrance / exit at the rear, losing a handful of rows and quite a few other seats in the process. They also use the side aisles as entrances / exits. I don’t know the impact of this in the upper tiers, but it made the stalls space more intimate. On stage there’s floor-to-ceiling wood panelling with doors and entrances within it. The floor covering changes with the location, starting as red carpet as the royal family enter for Lear’s announcement that he is to divide the country between his daughters. I thought Paul Wills design was excellent.

Though it’s something like my 14th Lear, there were things about this one that changed my response to the story. I still think there’s more than a touch of implausibility in him falling for the sycophancy of two daughters rather than the sincerity of the third, but here there’s an ageism in Goneril and Regan, in addition to to my normal feelings of spoilt children and inheritance ruins, and Regan in particular becomes completely self-obsessed and self-centred. The Duke of Kent has become the Countess of Kent, and this subtly changes, softens, the character. Edmund seems more machiavellian in contrast to an even more empathetic Edgar. Lear’s madness at first seems eccentricity, before it becomes tragic. I thought Jonathan Munby’s production was very fresh and intelligent.

From the original Chichester cast, Sinead Cusak and Danny Webb are both excellent as Kent and Gloucester respectively, and Kirsty Bushell is simply terrific as Regan. Michael Matus makes much more of the role of Oswald. There are some great performances from new cast members too, not least a superb Edgar from Luke Thompson and an outstanding Edmund in James Corrigan. Lloyd Hutchison is a particularly good Fool. I felt privileged to be seeing Ian McKellen in this role again, a gentler, sadder reading. At the curtain call, memories of more than twenty earlier performances by this fine actor swept over me as I rose to my feet in tribute.

The programme is way better than normal flimsy West End fare and in one of its four essay’s, historian David Starkey suggests that Shakespeare may have been having a dialogue with his patron, King James, even sending him messages about the consequences of dividing a kingdom. Four hundred years later, it’s sending messages still, and I suspect will continue to do so for a long time to come.

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I’m finding it increasingly difficult to enjoy an evening at the Globe. Nothing to do with the shows, but a lot to do with the audience, who’s behaviour appears to have deteriorated more than elsewhere, partly because the venue seeks to replicate Shakespeare’s period. On Friday I had to contend with simultaneous translation to my left, a middle aged couple making out in front, food & drink noise and talking all around, mobile phones, incessant photography and stewards attempting to stop the photography and in doing so walking loudly on the wooden floors, making it worse! I like to immerse myself in a show; these distractions make that impossible. I’ve been there many many times in its twenty year history, but the forthcoming Othello may be my last visit.

Based on Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale, from the late 14th century Canterbury Tales, there now seems to be a consensus amongst scholars that this play was a collaboration between Shakespeare and John Fletcher, towards the end of his career. The two kinsmen, Arcite & Palamon, are very good friends, both nephews of a discredited king, who find themselves in the custody of King Theseus. They both fall for Theseus’ sister-in-law Emilia, which sets them on an adversarial course. The king imprisons Palamon and banishes Arcite, before deciding they should fight it out for Emilia’s hand, the loser and his followers to be killed. When Palamon was in jail, the jailer’s daughter fell for him and this provides a sub-plot as her love for him sends her insane.

Though I’ve seen it before, I hadn’t grasped the fact that A Midsummer Night’s Dream is happening offstage while this story is being told; very clever. Barry Rutter’s production has the earthiness that became the trademark of his company Northern Broadsides, with excellent costumes by Jessica Worrell and music by folkie Eliza Carthy (which I’m afraid I thought was all over the place). It’s boisterousness suits the Globe, with songs and dances to sweep it along. Bryan Dick and Paul Stocker are well paired as the kinsmen and there’s a trio of charismatic royals from Jude Akuwudike as Theseus, Mayo Akande as Hippolyta and Matt Henry as Pirithous. Ellora Torchia as Emilia and Francesca Mills as the jailer’s daughter both delight.

I just wish I could have enjoyed it more, but don’t let that stop you.

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My two encounters with Shakespeare in this Globe mini-festival to celebrate his birthday earlier in the week were in Westminster Abbey and on the streets of The City and Southwark.

In the Abbey, we were invited to wander amongst the tombs of many of his historical characters, with actors popping up all over the place, individually, in pairs and small groups, speaking lines from his plays to individual visitors or small groups. Within minutes of entering, my first encounter was Mark Rylance close up in the transept giving Hamlet’s To Be Or Not To Be soliloquy; many more followed. We ended up in a circle in the nave around the actors with lanterns, singing before they left the abbey in procession through the front door. A really unique, uplifting and emotional experience.

Forty hours later I arrived at St Leonards Church in Shoreditch, famously connected with James Burbage, who built London’s first theatre down the road, and his son Richard, the first Hamlet and the first Richard III. Collecting a map and a red rose, we set off in small unguided groups on the Sonnet Walk East, which took in the site of this first theatre, appropriately called The Theatre, the recently discovered Curtain Theatre, where Romeo & Juliet was first performed, and the site of the first and second Globe, ending at the third present day Globe where we wove our red roses with the white ones already in the theatre gates.

At ten points en route actors popped up to read sonnets or speeches, one a song. My first encounter, as it had been in the Abbey, was Mark Rylance, but you could only identify him by his voice as he read Richard III’s battle speech from inside a tent on the site of The Theatre (probably wise as he’s now been in three Spielberg films!). We were fooled several times when the people we encountered seemed to be someone else (well, they are actors) until they began speaking verse. This included the site foreman in hard hat at the building site on top of the ruins of the Curtain, who described the find and its preservation, then spoke his lines just as we were about to leave, a lady asking for a photo and a Globe volunteer. Sometimes we imagined passers by were actors, mostly wrongly but occasionally right.

Like the Abbey, this was a lovely experience and together bookended a great weekend. Mark Rylance devised both, so hats off to him.

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