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Posts Tagged ‘William Shakespeare’

The last time I went to Ally Pally was for an audience with the Dali Lama, a force for good. Now it’s for the personification of evil, Richard III. Alexandra Palace Theatre was opened in 1875 but never really found its place in the cultural life of London – too big, too far out, more music hall than theatre. It has now re-opened, restored rather than rebuilt, in a Wiltons kind of way, and its as much of a coup opening with Headlong’s touring RIII, as it is for Headlong to effectively inaugurate it. Win-Win.

It’s a very big space and the production is confined to a small stage, so it struggles to find any intimacy. I found it difficult to engage with the first half, which seemed a bit rushed and workmanlike, the verse sometimes failing to land, but in all fairness this might be partly due to being surrounded by American University students on their year ‘abroad’ (they appeared to find this extraordinary opportunity a sentence) who had yet to learn respectful theatre behaviour. It ramped up significantly in the second half, from my new seat, and by the end became positively thrilling. It’s modern dress, played in a circular space with seven mirrors which revolved to become doors and windows, and a second tier for the most regal scenes. I very much liked the look of it, designed by Chiara Stephenson.

I was very impressed by Tom Mothersdale’s take on RIII, the arch manipulator, evil laced with madness, dragging his contorted body around the stage. With some cuts and some doubling, it’s a small ensemble, but they all impressed. I’m not familiar with the work of director John Haidar, but notwithstanding my difficulty getting into it, I thought it was a fresh and largely exciting take. I loved the ghost of the first to die collecting those that followed him, and when they all returned to haunt Richard it was terrifically staged.

Though it was good to visit the oldest new theatre, I suspect it would have had more impact in other venues on the tour, such as Bristol Old Vic. Still, I enjoyed the spectacular night-time views of London, the good value pre-theatre tapas and a building which oozes history. In another ‘first’, there was a surreal moment in the second half with a heckler who disrupted the show shouting things like ‘This isn’t true. You know its not true’. Richard left the stage and walked up to him in contempt, crowning him and soliciting an even angrier response!

 

 

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It would be difficult to find two productions of this play as far apart as this and Joe Hill-Gibbins staging at the Olivier just over five years ago (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2013/09/19/edward-II). The latter was on one of London’s biggest stages, this on one of its smallest. At the National, it was a radical take, with live video footage, here it oozes period. The NT’s thrilled me, but this left me rather cold I’m afraid.

It struck me for the first time how much weaker Marlowe’s dialogue is than Shakespeare’s verse; more accessible but nowhere near as beautiful. He packs in 20 years of history, and this production seems to have lost something like thirty minutes, which compounds the issue by making it feel rushed in a ‘let’s get it over with’ sort of way, with characters going into exile and back seeming a bit ‘here we go again’ tiresome. Like other contemporary staging’s, the true nature of Edward & Gaveston’s relationship is more overt but, given the setting of this production, the passionate kisses and embraces seemed at odds with the play. Above all, the story just didn’t engage, or even thrill, as it should. I felt no emotional involvement at all.

The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is a very suitable theatre, and the space is used well. Jessica Worrall’s period costumes are excellent, and the glistening black & gold backdrop takes you to the 14th century. The music mostly suits it, except the use of the West African Kora, beautiful though it is, which seemed totally out of place, conjuring up exotic foreign places rather than medieval Britain. Some of the touches of humour work, like Edward’s propensity to dish out titles played like a running joke, but sometimes it feels a bit flippant. The double and triple casting, using women in male roles, also works, though you have to suspend disbelief when you see a bishop who looks like he’s still at school.

I’ve rarely been disengaged in this lovely theatre by a play I have hitherto found fascinating. Maybe it hasn’t settled yet, but I’m afraid indifference was my primary reaction.

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The RSC’s latest revival of The Merry Wives of Windsor is TOWIE does panto. I’m normally OK with updating and though there’s stuff to enjoy here its pushed a bit too far to be for me. The reference to Brexit was the last straw.

The Ford’s and Page’s are more Essex than Windsor, dressed appropriately, chavily. For some reason, other characters wear doublet and hose which makes for an incongruous combination. The stage boasts two two-storey houses which revolve to become backdrops but nothing really signposts the various locations; the denouement isn’t in Windsor Great Park, but a town square. There’s a Physical Comedy Director, so that tells you a bit about what you’re in for, though it’s mostly crude slapstick. There’s added references and changed lines and a lot of music from a live band who sounded a bit disconnected and distant playing in the wings.

The chief reason for seeing it is David Troughton’s terrific turn as Falstaff. He towers over everyone else, most of whom seem to be more caricatures than characters. He squeezes every ounce of comedy out of his character, without making him one-dimensional. In addition to the classic moments, like hiding in a basket, here a wheelie bin, there are other sublime additions, like swimming in an imaginary pool at the front of the auditorium.

Though I had reservations, the rest of the audience appeared to have none, so maybe I was ending 2018 as a grumpy old man. See for yourself, but there are only three performances left!

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We seem to be going through a phase of filleting and re-ordering Shakespeare’s plays. The Donmar gave us a shortened Measure for Measure, twice in one evening, with gender swops between them. The National’s Anthony & Cleopatra started as it ended. Now the Almeida’s Richard II has lost an hour and nine characters and also brings forward a later scene. Somewhat ironically, this hyper-radical interpretation returns to Shakespeare’s original title. What comes out the other end is a frantic portrait of a country falling apart; not too difficult to identify with that at the moment. Shakespeare purists probably won’t like it; I found it bold, but not without its faults.

Eight actors play the thirteen characters remaining, in a large metal box, designed by ULTZ with excellent lighting by James Farncombe. in contemporary casual clothes. It’s somewhat manic in style, with fast speech and rapid movement and exaggerated gestures. Buckets of water, blood and soil (amusingly, labelled) get poured over characters and more gauntlets get thrown down in anger and challenge than you’re likely to have seen in your entire Shakespeare playgoing experience. There’s not a lot of subtlety, characterisations are weakened, verse loses beauty and the narrative of the play suffers……but it is a gripping 100 unbroken minutes and you can’t take your eyes off the stage.

The cast, led superbly by Simon Russell Beale as Richard, are uniformly excellent, but I didn’t feel Joe Hill-Gibbins production allowed them to get under the skin of their characters and reveal their psychological depth and motivation. I see Richard II as an introverted, introspective king who didn’t want to be king, uncomfortable with power, as most productions convey, and this didn’t come over here. Though I respect and admire the audacity and creativity, I didn’t find it entirely satisfying. It was a bit like watching the Tory party tearing itself and the country apart, and I’d done that before I got to the theatre that day, and indeed every other day at the moment.

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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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