The Cardinal at the Southwark Playhouse review ***


The Cardinal

Southwark Playhouse, 16th May 2017

Scary picture huh. Southwark Playhouse is a constant whirr of activity serving up all manner of delights across the theatrical spectrum. I just never know what to expect. I am not so shallow as to buy a ticket on spec based on a bit of blurb and a striking image – actually maybe I am.

So I went into this not really knowing what to expect and came out not entirely sure what I had seen. On the face of it this a classic tale of revenge from 1641 (just before Cromwell’s miserablists closed down the theatres) by a chap named James Shirley – a playwright known more in academic than performing circles. Set in C16 (I’m guessing) Navarre at war with Aragon, our widow and heroine is forced into a proposed marriage with blunt, soldier type who happens to be nephew of scheming cardinal who has the ear of the king. But she wants dashing, handsome type and, by virtue of a curious plot device in the form of a misinterpreted letter is able to get dodgy suitor to set her free so she can marry the pretty bloke. The blunt one/nephew doesn’t take too kindly to this. Cue vengeance and the inevitable corpse pile-up.

So frankly it is not the plot that makes this at all interesting. What is fascinating though is the way our man Shirley seems to be taking the p*ss a little out of the revenge tragedy, Duchess of Malfi anyone, and the quite strikingly direct, acerbic text. It is not at all florid. And furthermore our heroine really does possess agency. Obviously she dies, as they all do, but there is a really interesting exploration of her journey here. Moreover the hypocrisy at the heart of our Cardinal’s religion is given a right slagging.

This apparently reflects the changing status of women pre and post Restoration (and no doubt England’s view of the dodgy Catholic foreigner). Now don’t run away with the idea that there is an undiscovered feminist or humanist text here. It’s just that it was interesting for me to see the preamble to the gore-fest portrayed in this way.

The problem though was that having set this up in the first act, and early into the second act, it then seemed to revert to the very type it had sort of subverted, with our now utterly calculating heroine/widow roping in life partner candidate number 4 to dispatch the eponymous cardinal. As for the Cardinal himself, whilst Stephen Boxer does his level best to play the part in the style of an arch John Hurt (I am sure I am not the first to remark on this), there are times when he sounded a bit more Kenneth Williams’s Thomas Cromwell in Carry on Henry.

The other cast members all performed admirably with what they had but the stand out for me was Nathalie Simpson as the lead Duchess Rosaura. She had stood out as Guideria in Molly Still’s gender mash-up RSC Cymbeline last year and was very convincing here. I also note the contribution of Marcus Griffiths as Alvarez here, though he was better as Cloten in the self-same Cymbeline.

So all in all worth seeing. With some very appealing lines and ideas. And a very fine (and slightly alarming) sword fight. It’s just that the plot sort of collapsed inwards, and this left a bit too much for cast and director to do to persuade me this is a vital link between revenge tragedy and Restoration comedy in the history of British theatre and a scandalously neglected gem. I wonder if some genius director out there might find something else of value in Mr Shirley’s oeuvre given his turn of phrase (though I gather this is considered his best work not least by the man himself).

Still great picture. And Southwark Playhouse still wins the prize for diversity of offer hands down. Which is a really good thing if you want people who don’t look like me to come. Which itself is a really good thing. Though in this particular case this probably is only going to appeal to people just like me.

Othello at Wilton’s Music Hall review ****



Wilton’s Music Hall, 17th May 2017

I think Othello is my favourite Shakespeare tragedy. And it follows, therefore, that it is my favourite Shakespeare play since the tragedies generally kick the most arse. And it therefore also follows that it is probably my favourite ever play since no-one bests big Will. Mind you I have so much more to explore so lets not be hasty. But to date this is the Daddy.

This means I might not be the most objective judge. Which for this production really helped. I fear that a combination of my hearing which is no longer up to snuff, my seating position up in the gallery, the acoustic at Wilton’s and, perhaps, the sound engineering here meant that I couldn’t clearly hear a lot of the lines. Which is a shame as pretty much everything else about this Othello was mightily impressive as it cut straight to the core of what this play is about.

So what made it so good despite my blinking ears?

Well, first off, the programme is at pains to explores Othello’s “otherness” as a “Moor” in terms of his colour, but also more so his faith, as probably a Muslim who is forced to, or chooses to, embrace Christianity. The production serves to handsomely illuminate this (it starts with Othello on a prayer mat and crucifixes are liberally bandied about), such that it is not just the vitriolic racism that is on show but also the suspicion accorded Othello by the Venetians because of his roots in Islam. This despite his victories over the “Turks”. This may be C16 Venice (and Wilton’s itself does a nice line in atmospheric material decay), but clearly there is plenty of food for thought in this production for our own times.

It also rightly centres on Iago. There are multiple ways to explore why Iago is driven to do what he does but I think this production gets as close as possible to the heart of what drives him.

Of course Iago is disfigured by the racism and misogyny of the society that he lives in. And, as he says, being passed over for preferment in favour of Cassio portends a powerful grudge. His hatred of Othello is certainly borne of envy yes – of his masculinity, his power, his sexual relationship with Desdemona (in contrast to what may be his stagnating marriage to Emilia, look out for the “non-kiss”) – but at its heart is the dissonance between his admiration (and even attraction) to Othello and his incomprehension that this “other” should have everything he can’t have. He loathes himself and cannot, and will not, stop until he has brought this man down. His jealously is so all encompassing that he can justify his actions to himself and, for me, the final vow of silence is a sign that he still believes he was “right” to do what he did in his own mind.

So the “why the f*ck should he get everything when I am better than him” is the bigger lesson here. And this is what Will S nailed as it seems as if it is a permanent feature element of the human condition. It is this deep psychological impulse that lies at the heart of the alienation that pervades neo-liberal capitalism and is what some will always seek to exploit. So the play is relevant in my mind, not just because of the way it explores the “fear of the other”,  but also because it shows the hate people can be driven to by perceived “unfairness”.

Blimey I think I may have got all carried away there. Sorry.

Anyway none of this would work if the players are not up to the task. And here Mark Lockyer as Iago was about as good as it is possible to be. His Iago properly hates himself. Not just in his words but in his movement – pacing, pointing, finger-clicking, advancing and retreating – all in some sort of Prosperian performance to justify his thoughts and actions to himself, as well as hide his intentions from others. Brilliant and horribly plausible.

In contrast I saw a “man-child” Othello who was maybe more open to manipulation than in other productions which perhaps better explains, whilst still condemning, his brutally misogynistic destiny. It is stating the obvious that debutant Abraham Popoola has an extraordinary physical presence, but the way he used this in the scenes with Desdemona, both tender and violent, and especially with Iago, where Iago is winding his jealously up to the max, was remarkable. As Othello oscillates between his disgust at the imagined betrayal by Desdemona and his trust in her true nature, so Iago oscillates between a visible fear that he has pushed Othello too far (he actually physically shrinks when this Othello gets right in his face) and an almost smug satisfaction in what he can do to his “friend” and, always remember, his military superior.

There is also another very fine performance in the form of the diminutive Norma Lopez Holden as a sensual Desdemona. Constantly in motion, tactile and perfect in conveying, even to the end, the sense of disbelief at what has come over her husband. Throughout the sexual attraction between her and Othello pervaded the theatre. This actor will surely go far. To round it off we had a fine, upright Cassio in Piers Hampton and an Emilia in Kate Stephens who is, ultimately, the best side of our nature. In fact the whole ensemble seemed to me to perfectly execute director Richard Twyman’s laser-guided vision.

BTW Mt Twyman s a very important man. As Artistic Director of English Touring Theatre he will have a hand in bringing the best of theatre to venues outside of the London commercial and subsidised venues. A vital role. From what I have seen of their past production and what he has achieved here it is therefore an immense blessing that he is very, very good at his job.

In this directing role, and along with his sound and, especially, lighting team, he has brought a prodigious energy to this Othello and some absolutely first rate scenes with an absolute minimum of props and costume, particularly through Acts 2 to 5. The soldier’s partying and drinking, the big fight scene, the Iago wind up of Othello, the murder of Cassio in the dark, Emilia and Desdemona’s drunken but unswerving dissection of the relationship between the sexes, Desdemona’s murder (a yoga mat replaces the usually crassly symbolic bed and calls back the beginning) – all these scenes were as good as I have seen. And that wretched hanky gets an early look in – as part of the apparently non-Christian wedding ceremony at the start – how brilliant is that.

But if I was to single out one contributor it would be movement director Renaud Wiser. Like I said some of the lines, particularly Othello’s, floundered on the rocks of my dodgy hearing. This, together with the harsh downlighting and fluorescent tubes at the corner of the tight, bare, in-the-round stage, maybe meant I focussed on movement in a way that I might not normally do but here I could see just how vital this ingredient was to the whole.

So, as you may have gathered, I liked this. And this despite the aural handicap without which I might even be prepared to rate it alongside Nicholas Hytner’s NT production in 2013 which, to this day, still leaves me nervous of befriending anyone who comes across like Rory Kinner’s matey Iago.

So please go along. There’s another three weeks or so and it looks like plenty of tickets. Probably best to go downstairs, maybe have a quick snifter beforehand and it will help if you like the play already. But if you do go you will be reminded of just how vital Shakespeare can be. I am pretty sure Mark Lockyer’s Iago will rank as one of the best performances of the year. And all this for 25 quid tops.

This is the first time that I have seen a production by Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory. If this is what they do then it won’t be the last. Hopefully Wilton’s Music Hall will snap up anything they tour to allow the good burghers of London a chance to enjoy. Otherwise I now have the perfect excuse to go to Bristol. Here is the link to the website. Read it. This is how theatre should be done.

Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory