The Tragedy of King Richard the Second at the Almeida Theatre review ****

The Tragedy of King Richard the Second

Almeida Theatre, 9th January 2019

Vain, frivolous, self pitying, introverted. Richard II doesn’t come across too well at the beginning of this play, Shakespeare’s first instalment of his histories that chart the origins of the “War of the Roses” and end with the death of Richard III and accession of Henry VII. Yet by the close of Richard II, acutely aware of his own fate, we see, not a different person, but a man who finally realises how his actions, as well as those of his aristocratic rivals, brought him to where he is. The distinction in Joe Hill-Gibbons’s quick-fire take on his tragedy is that his nemesis, Bolingbroke, who becomes Henry IV, travels in the entirely opposite direction, secure in his right to reclaim his titles, and then the throne, on returning from banishment, he quickly descends into a vacillating arbitrator of facile dispute.

The play highlights the fact that political power often overwhelms those that seek to wield it, as competing interests compromise consensus, a valuable lesson for our troubled times. Kings, and their democratic equivalents, are those that divvy up the prizes, once land, now patronage, to lords and their modern equivalents. These may owe allegiance but they can get mighty uppity if they feel taken for granted or hard done by. The joy, and instruction, of Shakespeare’s history plays, which examine the delicate balance between those that lead and those that keep them there, is that the deadly embrace continues to this day. Only now, we, the hot-polloi, have the right to stick our oar in as well. Apparently the “will of the people”, even if no-one knows what it is, least of all the people, is now the only source of legitimacy. Hmmmm.

In order to get to the heart of this tragedy though the production does take a few liberties with us the audience. First off it starts at the end, kind of, with Simon Russell Beale’s Richard II pronouncing “I have been studying how I may compare/This prison where I live unto the world.” Famous soliloquy dispatched what follows might be, TV drama style, his flashback.

Richard II is written entirely in patterned verse, (as are the first and third parts of Henry VI and the ropey King John), even down to the gardeners who get to comment, memorably, on the state of the country under their warring betters. The verse remains intact through the 100 minutes of the production, (with a few pointed additions), but its rhythms take something of a back seat. Especially in the first half hour or so, when the lines are delivered at breakneck speed. Not a problem for Simon Russell Beale as Richard II or Leo Bill as Bolingbroke (whose lines are deliberately less florid and more direct than Richard’s). However one or two of the less seasoned members of the cast snatched a little, noticeably in the arbitration, tournament and banishment scenes. The rhythm settles down by the time we get to John of Gaunt’s lament (“this sceptred isle …. now bound in with shame … hath made a shameful conquest of itself”; the speech is not about how great we are but how we manage to f*ck it all up, that, and a couple of lines of blatant anti-Semitism). Even then you have to keep your ears open and your wits about you.

There is also, (not unreasonably since, as events pile up, it really works as a conceit, especially when combined with some inspired choreography), a lot of character doubling and more. The Tourist always recommends that Shakespeare is best consumed following a little homework into context and synopsis. A quick Google on the way in is all that is required, as witness BUD who was my guest here, even for those who think they know the plot backwards. Ironing out your Aumerle (here Martins Imhangbe) from your Carlisle (Natalie Klamar) from your York (John Mackay) from your Northumberland (Robin Weaver) always pays dividends. Knowing which aristo is on which side has historically always been a sound real life lesson as it happens: knowing why is a bonus.

Fans of “historical” Shakespeare, whatever that is, are also in for a bit of a shock here. ULTZ’s set is a stark, bare cube, comprised of brushed metal panels riveted together, topped by a frosted glass ceiling. It serves very well as prison cell, less figuratively as castle, garden or jousting field. As a way of showing how power plays out in claustrophobic rooms and crushes those who exercise it, it does the business though thank you very much, and, remember, we might be in the prison of Dickie’s mind anyway.

This set works especially well when combined with James Farncombe’s bold lighting design. JH-G had a huge cast on his last outing and a magnificent recreation of a Soho drinking den at the close of WWII courtesy of Lizzie Clachlan and a fat lot of good that did him. It was awful. Though that was more the play’s fault than his. Here he is on much firmer ground as he was with his excellent Midsummer Night’s Dream and measure for Measure at the Young Vic. His fascination with soil continues, there are buckets of earth, water and blood lined up and neatly notated at the back of the stage. I like to think they symbolised “this England”: they certainly left SRB needing a hot shower post curtain call.

Of the supporting cast I was particularly taken with Saskia Reeves, as I always am, who got to be the argumentative Mowbray, the unfortunate Bushy, (with Martins Imhangbe playing Bagot, his head-losing mate), the other favourite Green, and the Duchess of York, and Joseph Mydell, a composed Gaunt as well as Bolingbroke sidekick Willoughby. Various explicit nobles on both sides are excised from this reading, as is the Queen amongst others, and, should a fill-in be required, out stepped one of the cast from the “chorus”-like crowd. Brutal it may be for purists, but in terms of reinforcing the hurtling momentum, very effective.

Leo Bill once again shows why JH-G has faith in his Shakespearean abilities, but it is Simon Russell Beale who carries the weight of the production on his shoulders. How he ensures that we not only take in but understand the impact of every line he utters is a wonder, especially in the return to England and Flint Castle surrender scenes. Even when he wasn’t dashing out his metaphor and simile strewn lines in double quick time, and wasn’t soaked through covered in mud, this was a cracking performance. The fact that he was, and that we can still savour Shakespeare’s language, and sense the difference between the body politic and the body natural, (the, er, embodiment of the medieval king), shows again why he is now unarguably our greatest living Shakespearean actor.

In this performance Richard’s early, flawed, decision-making seems less vanity or indecisiveness and more high-handed hauteur, the desire just to get the job done regardless of consequences. I’m the king, by divine right, so of course I know what to do. There isn’t much in the way of Christ-like martyrdom here as there was in David Tennant’s guilt-ridden 2013 RSC take or in Ben Whishaw’s petulant Hollow Crown reading. No white robes or flowing mane of hair here. The fact that SRB is “too old”, the real Dickie was in his early thirties for the last two years of his reign when the play is set, and that he, and Leo Bill, look nothing like the generally accepted take on the characters, only adds to the universality of the message.

The early years of the actual Richard’s reign weren’t too jolly for him by all accounts. Acceding to the throne aged just 10, with a bunch of nobles preferring a series of ruling councils to a regency under Uncle John (of Gaunt), the Hundred Years War with France not going England’s way, Scotland and Ireland playing up and labour growing its share of the prosperity pot at the expense of landed capital (the Black Death had led to a sharp spike in agricultural wages). In 1381 the Peasants even had the temerity to Revolt. By now though the young king was throwing his weight around but many of the entitled aristos, (whom we meet in the play), didn’t hold with the company he kept and in 1387 the so called Lords Appellant, (Gloucester, Surrey, Warwick, Bolingbroke and Mowbray), seized control and one by one, tried and disposed of Richard’s favourites.

By 1389 Richard was back in control, with Gaunt’s oversight, and, for a few years, got on with the job. But he never forgot what his opponents had done and, come 1397 he started taking revenge, notably, on Gloucester, his uncle, who he had bumped off. This is often where the play steps off with the King’s bloody guilt informing the four short years before his death, probably by starvation, after Bolingbroke’s usurpation.

Richard was allegedly a good looking lad, see above, who believed absolutely in his divine right to rule at the expense of the uppity Lords. He wasn’t a warrior, rather a man of art and culture, aloof and surrounded by a close knit retinue. As with all the big players in the history plays, our perception of Richard II, is though to some degree shaped by the Bard’s not always favourable publicity (that’s if you have any view at all of course). Via his favourite contemporary historian Raphael Holinshed. There was apparently a time when historians thought Richard was insane: now the wisdom is that he had some sort of personality disorder that contributed to his downfall.

Mind you if you were locked up in solitary confinement you might well lose the plot. There is an extract in the programme taken from Five Unforgettable Stories from Inside Solitary Confinement by Jean Casella and James Ridgeway from Solitary Watch. Solitary Watch tracks the estimated more than 80.000 prisoners in the US system held in solitary confinement on an average day. Here four prisoners eloquently describe their experience. Left me speechless. 80,000. That’s not a typo. Google it.

So another success from the Almeida hit factory, another masterclass from Simon Russell Beale and another validation of Joe Hill-Gibbons radical(ish) way with Shakespeare. BUD, whose first exposure this was to the history plays, agreed. Mind you there isn’t much in this world that he can’t size up within 5 minutes of first introduction.

There is probably a case for JH-G slowing down proceedings just a little, another 15 minutes wouldn’t have been a stretch, just to let the poetry work a bit more magic, give a little more complexity to Bolingbroke and the nobles, and draw out more from the themes. And the stylised, expressionist visual concepts won’t, (and haven’t), pleased everyone. But as a coruscating denunciation of the perennial failure of the political class, you want see much better on a stage even if it was written over 420 years ago.

The Merry Wives of Windsor at the Barbican Theatre review *****

The Merry Wives of Windsor

RSC, Barbican Theatre, 13th December 2018

Confession. This was the first time I had ever seen a production of The Merry Wives of Windsor. The Tourist can’t remember there being an opportunity, RSC or otherwise, in those few periods of his intensive theatre-going in the past, and I don’t think there was a production of sufficient quality over the more fallow years to drag him away from the reality of life, work, kids, drink and the like.

Also, I have to admit, TMWOW has always sounded a bit limp, with the Shakespeare industry being a bit sniffy about its worth, dubbing it “the first sit-com”, compared to the other comedies, Twelfth Night, Dream, Much Ado, As You Like It, Errors, Shrew ….. in fact only The Two Noble Kinsmen of the “pure” comedies seems to get a worse rap. (Well maybe The Taming of the Shrew with its impossible to mitigate misogyny without some dubious directorial device). The other criticism seems to centre on the disappointment of taking one of WS’s most “rounded” characters, analytically as well as literally, out of the history plays and plonking him into a class-based farce as the butt of the comedy.

Well just as Barrie Rutter made a case, albeit not entirely convincing, for WS’s (with John Fletcher) last contractural obligation with his Two Noble Kinsmen at the Globe, so director Fiona Laird has served up a peach for the RSC, (though it is just about to end its run at the Barbican). All I can say is that if TMWOW is normally this funny then all those naysayers who are supposed to know their onions when it comes to the Bard need their heads examined.

If it isn’t normally this funny then Ms Laird is to be further congratulated for making it so to a contemporary audience. Shakespeare’s humour comes from plot – usually will they/won’t they romances and unlikely assignations, from – word-play – badinage, punning and bawdiness – and from physical comedy – which, obviously, is not something made explicit in a text. To make a modern audience laugh it usually makes sense to trust Will and let the plot do what it will, play down the anachronistic, and not always easy to follow, wordery and massively ramp up the caricature, mannerism and visual gags. Which is exactly what this production does. With plenty of new interpolations.

If the audience reaction at the performance the Tourist attended was anything to go by, and it seems this has been supported by critics, professional and amateur alike, this definitively worked. I laughed. A lot. In fact as much as I can ever remember for a Shakespeare comedy. It is not as all round satisfying as the best Much Ado or Twelfth Night production but it was still a revelation.

The plot is contrived. And daft. No question. One theory alleges that Will only had 14 days to come up with it after the Queen requested an entertainment for the Order of the Garter festival in 1597 to feature her favourite of his comic creations, Sir John Falstaff. Now, as I sure you all know, Falstaff is way more than just a comic buffoon, as we see in Henry IV Parts I and II, and as Mistress Quickly explains in her eulogy in Henry V. He may be vain, boastful, corrupt, cowardly, a drunk and petty criminal, but he is charismatic and he embraces life and we, and Prince Hal, therefore love him despite his faults. And he is, of course, fat and as everyone knows us fat people, with our seeming inability to control our appetites, and our apparent physical limitations, are just funny.

Humour invariably validates superiority. It takes what the group or society has deemed as unsettling, threatening or just different and turns it into something safe and tolerable. Falstaff, because the genius Shakespeare created him, is doubly funny because he is both the object of our laughter and also, because of his wit and intelligence, the source. Tricky business humour. I am sure that there are plenty of people who would be happy to make a joke at my expense because I am fat. In the same way it would probably make me happy to make a joke at their expense because they are stupid. Like I say tricky business.

Anyway I suspect big Will didn’t waste too much time mulling over the psychology of humour and just got on with the task, knowing which way the Elizabethan bread of patronage was buttered. Which explains the oft observed “lack of subtlety” in the plot and character. Yet, as all students of the situation-comedy know, the best characters in the genre have one, or more, personality traits amply exaggerated. And the best sit-com plots begin with a plausible set-up that gets incrementally ever more ridiculous. Which, give or take, is what happens in TMWOFW.

Falstaff is on his uppers. He pitches up in Windsor, or, in this production a place that feels suspiciously like Chigwell. He resolves to woo a couple of wealthy married women, Mistress Alice Ford and Mistress Margaret Page. He commands his servants, Pistol and Nym, to deliver the ladies identical love letters. They refuse and tell the ladies’s husbands. Page (Paul Dodds) isn’t too bothered but Ford is the jealous type, and he is introduced to Falstaff by the Host(ess) of the Garter Inn masquerading as a Master Brook in order to unveil Falstaff’s plans. Meanwhile, (yep there is always a meanwhile or two in these plots), three other chaps are trying to woo the Ford’s daughter, Anne; absurd French doctor Caius, asinine youth Master Abraham Slender, cousin (here nephew) to Justice Robert Shallow and young Fenton (Luke Newberry), a gentleman now bereft of his fortune.

Cue confusions, set-ups and comic revenges. By the three suitors on the Host(ess), by the two Mistresses on Falstaff, by “Brook” on Falstaff, by Ford on his wife, by everyone on Falstaff, and by Page and his wife on Slender and Caius, and by Anne and Fenton on the parents. It all ends happily though.

These farcical set pieces, replete with disguise and concealment, offer plenty of opportunity for clowning, which the cast, directed by Spymonkey specialist Toby Park, relish and have perfected over the run in Stratford and now London. David Troughton is a brilliant Falstaff, decked out in “fat suit” and priapic codpiece, and booming out his perfectly timed lines. Rebecca Lacey and Beth Cordingley are sensational as the conspiratorial and true friends, Mistresses Page and Ford, with exaggerated TOWIE accents and hamming up their humiliations of Falstaff, both in the laundry basket scene, here a wheelie-bin, and in the Woman of (now) Brentwood scene. Vince Leigh, who I remember pulled off a similar trick in Propellor’s all -male Taming of a Shrew as Sly/Petruchio, manages to make Ford’s jealousy palpable, and not a little pungent, but still amusing, and even gracious, when his suspicions prove unfounded. It is possible to believe that he and Beth Cordingley could be a couple who care beneath the mutual scorn.

Tim Samuels and Tom Padley make a fine double act as Shallow and Slender. All the servants, Ishia Bennison as Mistress Quickly, here housekeeper to Caius, Steve Basaula as his man Rugby, Nima Taleghani as Falstaff’s pageboy and John Macaulay as Simple, offer wry indulgence to the whims of their “betters”. Charlotte Josephine, Afolabi Alil and Josh Finan are also able to inject at least some of the personalities of Bardolph, Pistol and Nym, though these are more developed in the history plays. TMWOW is, at its heart, a satire on the pretensions and affectations of the “middling” class, their preoccupations with wealth, marriage prospects and position in society. Aristocracy is conspicuous by its absence, other than Falstaff and his young doppelgänger the spendthrift Fenton, though Shakespeare chucks in enough references which gently mock his Court audience, and the servants are generally enablers rather than protagonists. This then is obviously immediately recognisable territory for the modern audience, “we are all middle class now”, made more so here by the Essex milieu.

The comedy also takes a swipe at that staple of “English” comedy, foreigners, and specifically their funny accents. No obviously progressive way to do this so best wade right in. David Acton does exactly that with loquacious Welsh parson Sir Hugh Evans, another from the Shakespeare school of Welsh windbags, but Jonathan Cullen goes even further with Dr Caius, offering a Gallic strangling of the English language which goes well beyond the simply Clouseau-esque. A couple of deft retouches create some priceless, and filthy, moments, one of which I fear I might have made up in my own dirty mind as no-one else seemed to laugh. I particularly enjoyed the addition of the East Europeans who come to remove the wheelie-bin, who are snootily looked down on by the assembled throng whilst they, it transpires, are chatting about the scene’s resemblance to Proust.

The final theme of TMWOW seems to me to lie in the power executed by the women. By casting Katy Brittain as the Hostess of the Garter pub she too, along with the Mistresses, Anne, (another fine performance from Karen Fishwick to set alongside her Juliet in this season), and Mistress Quickly, run rings around the lads. They get their own way, and get revenge on the sexual predators, not through compromise, simpering or abasement but through their own agency, and they have a right laugh in the process. Switching the denouement to the town square, rather than Windsor Great Park, with Elizabeth’s statue towering over it, may slightly invalidate Falstaff’s Herne the Hunter garb, though Epping Forest isn’t too far away I’ll warrant, but it does, finally, leave the women on top. I wonder if Liz I herself would might been pleased with this ending.

Lez Brotherston’s set, turning seamlessly to reveal the skeletal interiors and exteriors of the half-timbered houses, is as ingenious as his hybridised costumes, which mix modern and Elizabethan fashions. There is plenty of blingey accessories on show, particular favourites for the Tourist were the blow-up flamingos, Mistress Page’s all in one cerise pink throne and foot-bath, Anne’s fluffy pooch, the f*ck-off massive gas barbecue, the remote-control golf cart and the white leather bar stools. Caroline Burrell has recreated Tim Mitchell’s lighting design particularly effective when the houses turn neon. Gregory Clarke’s sound design didn’t intrude and Fiona Laird’s own composition completed the jolly mood.

OK so there are a couple of occasions when my snob-o-meter vibrated. The Bread of Heaven chorus and the Dick Emery reference might have been steps too far but that is my problem not Ms Laird’s and the RSC’s. Overall this is a cracker of a show, very funny, easily digested and with a few points to prove. Carry On.

https://athomehefeelslikeatourist.blog/2018/06/27/the-two-noble-kinsman-at-the-globe-theatre-review/

Antony and Cleopatra at the National Theatre review ****

Antony and Cleopatra

National Theatre Olivier, 11th December 2018

Simon Godwin is a director who has shown he has a bit of a way with the sprawling masterpieces in the dramatic canon in recent years. Especially from the Bard. His recently opened Timon of Athens at the RSC, albeit with the force of nature that is Kathryn Hunter in the lead, seems to have gone down well with the criterati. Previously at the National his Twelfth Night, (OK so that’s not really sprawling but it is stuffed to the gills with characters all wanting time to shine), was a belter, his excellent African inspired RSC Hamlet announced Papa Essiedu to the world, and further back the Tourist can bear witness to the success of his interpretations of Farquhar’s The Beaux Stratagem, Shaw’s Man and Superman and O’Neill’s Strange Interlude, none of which falls into the snappy, straightforward category.

He doesn’t go in for the flashy, but neither is he by any means “conservative”, here being resolutely modern-dress. What I think he does do is think carefully about every single character’s attributes and motivations, and how they fit together, and ensures they have enough “space” to show those attributes and motivations. So even the most far fetched plot seems eminently reasonable. He is at it again with Antony and Cleopatra. You can see that from the string of 4* reviews and the gongs already handed out to the incomparable Sophie Okonedo (who has also I see now bagged a CBE from Her Maj) and the redoubtable Ralph Nathaniel Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes (who I believe has never been so honoured though he is, as you might expect with that moniker, a distant relative of our beloved Royals).

So you probably don’t need me to tell you this is probably about as good an interpretation of the still flawed A&C as you are ever likely to see. (And you can still see it if you are crafty, and lucky, with the returns that invariably pop up a day or so ahead). Still, redundancy, and/or sluggishness, have not prevented me venturing an opinion in the past so here goes.

The problem with A&C, which was readily apparent in the last, somewhat unconvincing, RSC offering, lies in the flamboyance of the language, the articulation between the “great events” which provide its context and the domestic “at home with the … ” drama of our ageing lovebirds, and the potentially wearing effect of seeing the celeb couple always “showing off” to real, and imagined, audiences. Simon Godwin however has chosen to take these challenges head on.

First up he takes his time. At near 3.5 hours with the interval, across 42 scenes, this does mean there are one or two moments where audience concentration will waver but, with little in the way of cuts (though I am not expert enough to be sure), it means that the historical big picture is unclouded and that all the characters, and not just the power couple, get the chance to show themselves fully. Moreover the lines themselves are given air to breathe and the detail of the domestic exchanges has been rigorously thought out, especially the comic and ironic inflections. Interestingly only the final suicide scenes feel a little rushed with the snake being a bit of an indulgence. We had come this far so I would have been happy to see a more measured take on Tony’s botching and Cleo’s scrupulous choreographing of her own demise.

Obviously it helps that the acting is so strong. And not just from our Sophie and our Ralph. Tim McMullan as Enobarbus, especially shaven-headed for the part, is as wonderful as everyone says he is. It helps that Enobarbus is gifted with some of the best lines in the play but even so he brilliantly walks the tightrope of truth and cynicism (central to the whole play) in his capacity as detached observer and explainer of events and as the embodiment of corrupted honour. And he does all of this whilst barely appearing to try. Now I am pretty sure that Mr McMuillan doesn’t want for work, so good an actor is he, but I would like, no I demand, a Richard II and an Iago from him in the relatively near future. And a lead role in a new play at the NT.

The other standout was Fisayo Akinade as Eros, given full rein to ramp up the comedy but also squeezing a ton of emotion out of a character that normally is just a bit part. The smart money already knows this young man is going places. Re-gendering Agrippa definitely worked, especially with Katy Stephens stepping up, I really enjoyed the performances of Gloria Obianyo and Georgia Landers as Chairman and Iras, more put upon bessies than intimidated hand-maidens, joining Eros and Enobarbus as the conflicted confidantes required to soothe and distract their nominal bosses.

Hannah Morrish did her steely, vulnerability thing again as Octavia. Nicholas Le Provost did his Nicholas Le Provost voice to perfection as a slightly feeble Lepidus, though Tim McMullan’s impersonation might actually improve on the real thing, and Sargon Yelda was an adept Pompey. In fact the only slightly jarring performance came from Tunji Kasim (who is a fine actor make no mistake) whose Octavius seemed overly stilted compared to the naturalistic verse and prose delivery on show elsewhere.

This delivery and the afore-mentioned deliberate pacing also meant that the “performances” of A&C were foregrounded. A&C were the hammed-up actors in their own blockbuster, not just in terms of the ludicrously over the top way they voice their love but also in the way they inject this passion, this risk-taking, into their behaviour in the political arena. Whilst also knowing they are a bit too old and tired for all this display and that it is unlikely to end well. But there egos can’t help themselves. This is also perhaps what has made the story, and especially the “idea” of Cleopatra, so alluring to subsequent generations. (Though as the preposterous flummery of Dutch/British Victorian artist above shows most of these generations preferred their Cleo to look like she had come from Surrey).

Making sense of the “epic” in the tale whilst still permitting us to make a personal, emotional, connection is Mr Godwin’s, and his casts’, smartest achievement here. Hildegard Bechtler’s revolving set (note to designers: always use the revolve on the Olivier to avoid the “acres of space” illusion) is sumptuously minimal, or minimally sumptuous, making the delineation between efficient Rome (modern war room with split screen conflict footage), sultry Egypt (Alexandrian palace with complete with pool – only slightly Vegas) and all places in between, including a submarine, clear without being fussy. Once again it does slow down proceedings but, like I say, that gives time to process what we learn from each of the sometimes rapid-fire scenes.

I’ve no doubt that Anthony Hopkins and Judi Dench did it better but this was the first time the play properly worked for me. Sophie Okonedo, dolled up in slinky ballgowns (Evie Gurney and the costume team can certainly tailor), breezes through Cleo’s caprice, wit, quick temper, self-obsession, but still manages to make her exposed, needing her soldier-boy especially when he is not there. The bickering is patently borne of adoration and mutual dependence, as well as their individual self-regard.

Ralph Fiennes brings a little of the faded rock star from A Bigger Splash as he dons baggy salvars when relaxing with his lady love. Yet he also, as you might expect, nails military bearing when required. Throughout he does seem troubled, burdened if you will, shoulders hunched, as if he knows how the picture will end. As do we particularly given Simon Godwin’s decision to show us the end at the beginning (and the end, obvs). I had forgotten how many wonderful lines Shakespeare gives Antony to grapple with his failure, his fading from view. Loved it.

Eternity was in our lips and eyes …. ‘fraid not Cleo as this excellent production shows. It will never be the Tourist’s favourite Shakespeare but finally I see the attraction.

Measure for Measure at the Donmar Warehouse review *****

Measure for Measure

Donmar Warehouse, 22nd November 2018

BOGOF. An inelegant retail term, Buy one get one free. Which is exactly what you get here. Two stripped-down, straight to the point versions of Will’s 1604 riff on justice, told as mirror images with gender reversal. 

So much gender swapping in Shakespeare, whilst interesting, and occasionally illuminating fails to serve a real purpose. So many shouty attempts to point up how “relevant” Shakespeare is to today come over as heavy-handed or desperate. Of course Will is for now, for “all time” because he understood and could illuminate human nature, our psychology whether as individuals or in a  social context, which is the same now as it was in Jacobean times. However there are undeniably times when Will’s punctilious gender politics radar flies a little off course. So some gentle coaxing, some redirection, is needed to change the point of attack.

And this is what Josie Rourke has done in this production. Problem play? Not here. Whilst not everything at the Donmar has come off during her stewardship of the Donmar alongside Executive Producer Kate Pakenham, the productions she has directed (notably St Joan, The Vote, Privacy, Coriolanus, The Weir and Berenice) have all be outstanding IMHO. The Donmar legacy is substantial and IMHO the last few seasons have always been interesting, with some palpable gems, the houses packed and, I am guessing, audiences broadening. Remember where JR and KP took over they were the first women to run a major London theatre. Fortunately now they are not quite alone.

Anyway she has a way with Shakespeare and is unafraid of making bold decisions to shed new light on the works. Now MFM, like its near companion the Merchant of Venice, is intended to be comic in form but deals with serious moral and ethical issues, as the title, drawn from you know who in the new Testament, implies. The slipperiness of justice and mercy are highlighted through abuses of power, in the context of a decadent and troubled society. But, as usual WS doesn’t offer up a simple morality play. He draws on the internal conflicts within the main characters to cover all the bases. Usual story, with no ambiguity, no grey areas, no “tragicomedy”, no complexity, there is a risk of no drama, just a lesson. Even saying this MFM, along with All’s Well That Ends Well and, for somewhat different reasons, Troilus and Cressida is a tricky customer. From classical comedy to medieval Romance to Renaissance satire, and any number of combinations in between, these are fascinating plays.

Angelo, not his ostensible boss, Escalus, is left by the Duke of Vienna to enforce the laws of the corrupted, morally lax state. When the novice nun Isabella comes to plead for mercy on behalf of her brother Claudio, condemned to die for the sin of pre-marital fornication, (which incidentally the 18 year old Will S and the 26 year old Anne Hathaway “committed” pre wedding), he tries to seduce her by trading Claudio’s life for her body. She refuses and threatens to unmask him. Angelo sneers that no-one will believe her. The Duke meanwhile, disguised as a Friar, after telling Claudio he has to accept his tragic fate, then comes up with the classic Renaissance comedy bed switch to trick Angelo into sleeping with his abandoned fiancee Mariana (it was very, very dark in those days) thinking she is Isabella. 

This is the point where verse turns to prose, the Friar unmasks as the Duke, Angelo turns up the treachery dial, and dubious plot manipulation leads to the not actually dead Claudio (there has been a comedy “head” switch to explain this) reunited with Isabella, Angelo forced into marrying Mariana (and the comic lead Lucio to a prostitute, just to ram home the point) and the Duke “proposing” to Isabella. So “tragedy” is averted but far from a comic ending.

So the formal justice of the state is contrasted with the concept of natural justice, the morality and ethics of the individual with that of society and the Church, and lustful and venal behaviour gets its comeuppance, or doesn’t. 

Now it would seem that the Jacobean mind was a bit more up for this lurching from comic to tragic, from deep and dark to light and fluffy, to allow the playwright (here, as the Duke, in the form of an on-stage agent) to push his characters where he (rarely she) will regardless of credibility, cogency or tone. We seem to be less flexible nowadays. Complexity and ambivalence are OK but moral uncertainty is unsettling. The setting for MFM, almost exclusively “indoors”, with dungeons, palaces, courts and chambers also lends any humour a darker, sourer edge than the knockabout and wordplay outdoors in some of the more obviously comic plays. 

Which I think is why productions of MFM, The Merchant of Venice, The Winter’s Tale and Timon of Athens which, whilst being careful not to completely jettison the tonal unevenness and behavioural uncertainties of the texts, offer up a firm(ish) contemporary ethical framework. You need to know where you are so you can then work out where you aren’t as it were, whilst still enjoying all the usual Shakespeare stuff, language, plot twists, rapid scene changes, rule-breaking, bonkers settings (here we are Vienna but everyone has an Italian name reflecting WS’s source, a 1578 play by George Whetstone called Promos and Cassandra). 

So this means Angelo’s blackmail, Venice’s anti-semitism, Leontes’s jealously, the greed, corruption and misanthropy of Timon and “friends” all need to be drawn out and signalled before being muddied. 

Anyway enough of the amateur criticism. What Josie Rourke has done is get to the heart of the male domination which underpins MFM through a, as it turns out, not so simple reversal. So take one, in “period” dress, sees Hayley Attwell as Isabella and Jack Lowden as Angelo in a speeded up, but largely complete, run through and the Duke, Nicholas Burns, as her nemesis at the close. Take two, it’s now 2018 and we are in modern dress, phones brandished, sees the switch of Isabella and Angelo’s lines, so with pronoun and other minor deft changes, we now see Angelo, as a member of some unspecified radical church organisation, as the chaste “victim” and Isabella as the predator. Except that it doesn’t quite pan out that way. 

As Isabella, Hayley Attwell is resolute and defiant convincing us that her principles trump her desire to save her brother’s life but also her yielding to a pragmatic way out. We are in no doubt though of the predatory bargain that the sententious hypocrite Angelo tries to strike (and its obvious parallels for the MeToo generation). And, when the manipulative Duke traps Isabella at the end with his marriage “proposal” she lets out an anguished howl and screams into his face (and, by implication, the face of every bloke through history). Cue dissolve. Part two. Now the blunt and unfeeling enabler of the law, Hayley Atwell is equally as convincing as she soliloquises about her lust for Angelo. Admittedly the mechanics of her move on Angelo and his rejection now stretch credulity a little but it still intrigues. However the most powerful moments come as it becomes clear that even now Isabella is the victim of the men around her, as she is mocked and shamed by them, tricked into bed with (now male ex) Frederick (Ben Allen), and them married off by a gloating Duke, who in turn now lusts after and entraps Angelo. 

Now you might think that this conceptual trickery might prove to be hard going. You would be wrong. The story moves along at a hell of a lick, both times, with minor characters excised, “head” and crowd scenes thinned out and Mariana downplayed. Peter McKintosh bare stage doesn’t get in the way of the message. Ms Atwell, who frankly I could watch for several hours just wrapping Xmas presents, is matched by Jack Lowden. Sule Rimi, as he has been in a number of recent productions I have seen, is also hypnotic as Claudio (especially in his cyclical rejection of the Duke/Friar’s pep talk ahead of his impending death second time around), and the comic interventions of Matt Bardock as Lucio, Jackie Clune as a now female, Russian inflected Pompey and Rachel Denning as Miss Overdone are delicious. 

This was Josie Rourke’s penultimate production at the DW. This theatre’s loss will be film’s gain. Which reminds me. I must see her Mary, Queen of Scots with Margot Robbie and Saoirse Ronan

Macbeth at the Barbican Theatre review ***

Macbeth

Barbican Theatre, 15th November 2018

Is this a dagger I see before me … well maybe more of a kitchen knife …

It is pretty tightly plotted (at least if you pare it down). It is quick by comparison to a lot of the Bard – half the length of Hamlet, though that always needs a few nips and tucks – in part perhaps because Thomas Middleton adapted the text that has come down to us. It wastes no time at all in getting going – if anything it is a bit too abrupt at the start I reckon. Other than Macbeth and his lady wife most of the characters don’t get much air time to reveal themselves. It’s language is direct, often shockingly so. It is eminently quotable. There is no welter of arcane classical references. Most interested people know it or know of it (it’s a GCSE set text after all). The themes are easily defined and understood – ambition and patriotism, moral disorder and inversion, violence begetting violence, childlessness and legacy, gender roles and masculinity, the suppression of feeling and equivocation, the supernatural.

It might be built on an edifice of contemporary (when written) conventions, verse speaking, soliloquies, quibbles, audience asides, witches, ghosts, a dumb show, severed heads, but it is the supernatural that gives plenty of scope for coups de theatre. It may also have been intended to massage a royal ego, the patron of the company that first performed it, Jimmy I (of England, No 6 of Scotland) being an expert in the magic field with his best-seller Demonology, and coming just after the failed Roman Catholic plot to blow him up. Yet the supernatural also works on our imagination, (as it works on the power couple), always a good idea in a play, which, together with big Will’s acute psychological insight, and repetitive language – blood, blood and more blood, time, darkness, man – explains why it is so popular.

So why then is it apparently now so difficult to get right? Search me though if I take this somewhat disappointing version, alongside the similarly underwhelming recent NT production, (and plenty more in the last decade), the problem might lie in trying to hang too much on the play. No problem with a clear overarching creative vision but keep it simple. Don’t add all sorts of frills – there are enough interpretative and visual choices to be made from the text itself. Make sure the two leads nail the verse. No mumbling. Ensure they can explain their motivations – remember they are travelling in opposite directions, from normative revulsion to nihilistic emptiness in the case of Macbeth and vice versa for the Lady. The other characters can play it straight. Duncan is a symbol of kingship, Banquo matters because he doesn’t fall for all that weird sister sh*t. (And he can scare us later). The Porter is there to offer ironic commentary, warn against those who say one thing and do another, and, here in this production, very successfully mind the time. Everyone else is pretty much plot collateral.

It works best when we the audience are dragged into the couple’s nightmare. Small space, simple staging, like the landmark Dench/McKellen/Nunn RSC version. Or the Walter/Sher/Doran apparently, which kicked off in darkness. The recent Ninagawa version, though it is different, worked because the Samurai backdrop leant contextual clarity and the age of the couple a desperate poignancy.  The 2015 Justin Kurzel film, if you can forgive the accents, also has a clear aesthetic and some very smart interpretative choices. You can add your own to the list.

In this version however, director Deborah Findlay, seems to have focussed on the details of the visual, and on the “horror” to the exclusion of the themes. Some of this works, notably Michael Hodgson’s Geordie Porter, always present, tapping his watch, chalking up the body count, hoovering incessantly, disturbing in his ordinariness, as well as the digital clock countdown, even if it is a big of a cliche, which links to the theme of time passing. Niamh Cusack as Lady Macbeth, clawing and pawing, also has the measure of most of her key lines and David Acton’s Duncan, whilst a little fruity, is what you expect from a man born (rather than compelled) to rule. However Christopher Eccleston, whilst capturing Macbeth’s military bearing, doesn’t, for me, vary the verse sufficiently, such that he comes across as insufficiently tortured by events. The same is true of the Edward Bennett’s Macduff who comes across as more geography teacher than grief stricken revenger. Mr Bennett is an outstanding Shakespearean, especially in comedy, but he looked lost here. Rafael Sowole’s hefty Banquo was more convincing, especially as ghost. 

Having the witches played by three girls, dressed in red, Don’t Look Now/Shining style and signifying blood, is initially striking but the novelty soon palls. The jump cut fizzing/flickering lighting from Lizzie Powell, and the “spine-chilling” score from Rupert Cross and sound design of Christopher Shutt leans a little heavily towards the cinematic. Fly Davies’ set, with de rigeur upper level, accommodates the interpretation but doesn’t really wow or command the front of the vast Barbican stage. 

Having said all this the production doesn’t drag, it squeezes out a few laughs, not all intended, and its pinball of ideas craves attention. Maybe I should try some of the other current London Macbeth’s, the NYT at the Garrick, or the Michelle Terry/ Paul Ready at the Sam Wanamaker (if it wasn’t so bloody uncomfortable, and more problematically, sold out). Or maybe I’ll just wait. Something wicked will this come again soon. 

Romeo and Juliet at the Barbican review ***

Romeo and Juliet

Barbican Theatre, 8th November 2018

You can stay right next to Juliet’s balcony in Verona. Le Suite de Giulietta. The Tourist, SO, BD and LD can vouch for the lovely decor, the sizeable rooms and the delicious breakfast. The courtyard is closed at night so it is very tranquil and, in the day, it is quite fun watching the crowds do a double take when you exit from the hotel. And Verona itself is a very fine city. 

Now I am not a berk. I know it was a window not a balcony. And that this is a story which Will S nicked from William Painter via Arthur Brooke via numerous Italian medieval raconteurs, including Dante, and then all the way back to Ovid and Xenophon. But even this cranky curmudgeon can get swept along by the definitive tale of young love dashed. Though Shakespeare being Shakespeare there is a lot more too it than that, what with the examination of gang violence, pointless vendettas, family loyalty, sexual freedom the curious nature of Mercutio, the expanding eloquence of Romeo, the precocity of Juliet (she’s supposed to be coming up to 14 remember), the constancy of Benvolio, the comic good-naturedness of the Nurse and the misguided and hare-brained intervention of Friar Laurence.

It’s easy to see why R&J is so popular and has been presented in so many ways. The denouement with our two dead teens is always, or should be, a tearjerker, even as we know the outcome, the idiocy of Friar John – all you had to do was deliver a letter, how hard is that numbnut – is always a reason to shake your fist, the reconciliation of the families, (even as you know it won’t last), always stirs, there are some good, often dirty, jokes and some fine, sweet verse. 

It can endure a lot of textual and/or directorial abuse, (though it is hard to fathom the happy endings of previous centuries), and, even with the sub-plots is a breeze to follow, even without the Friar’s helpful “brief” summary at the end. What it doesn’t like though, in my book, is less than clear delivery of the verse. You need to hear the clever way WS matches language and form to character, you should clock the sonnets, you ought to grasp the filter of metaphor and religion through the language of love, and hate, you should be left to decide for yourself whether the narrative is driven by “fate”, by “chance” or by character “flaws” or “humours” and you need time to ponder on Shakespeare’s preoccupation with, well, time.

In this respect I wasn’t entirely convinced by director Erica Whyman’s gung-ho interpretation. The youthful cast, in the relevant roles, certainly brings to the fore the recklessness of their behaviours, their strutting self-absorption, their need for peer validation, and the brings out the parallels to contemporary knife crime. Bally Gill’s impetuous, swaggering yet still sensitive, Romeo and Karen Fishwick’s animated, “mature beyond her years”, Juliet could live in any city near you right now. They certainly have the chemistry. Charlotte Josephine brings a whole new dimension to Mercutio’s complexity, his/her relationship with Romeo and exaggerated masculinity. To me there was almost a rap like quality to Mercutio’s wilder flights of linguistic fancy. Josh Finan’s Benvolio offered counsel to Romeo which maybe also sprung from a deeper admiration. The gender fluidity in the Houses of Montague and Capulet also extended to Donna Banya’s timid Gregory. 

In the adult roles casting Beth Cordingley as Escalus pays off especially when she spits out “you men, you beasts” and Michael Hodgson is a severe Daddy Capulet who pushes his daughter into disobedience. Ishia Bennison’s Nurse also delivers, offering up her deceptively “simple” verse complete with funny accent. Andrew French’s Friar L relished every syllable. Tom Piper’s set, with oxidised cube, doesn’t really add much, then nor does it detract, (well maybe a bit at the end), and Ayse Tashkiran’s movement seems more in tune with Erica Whyman’s vision than some of the other creatives. As well as time, Will S bangs on about light and dark, night and day, sun and moon/stars, incessantly through the play, and the whole tone lurches to the minor post Mercutio’s slaying by Tybalt, but this contrast didn’t fully emerge. Sophie Cotton’s score similarly veered towards the murky. 

Overall then, in trying to explore the “tragedy of youth” and the intricacy of passion in a fresh and recognisably modern setting, to get to the root of “feelings”, the words sometimes ended up grating. The chopping of text wasn’t always helpful. And the delivery was uneven. I want to believe that this unlikely chain of events really could happen, to see the “if-onlys” as exactly that, and not to watch some swooning melodrama, but I also want to hear and digest exactly what everyone is saying. So big picture, this works, in some of the details, it is a little less cogent. 

 

OthelloMacbeth at the Lyric Hammersmith review ***

Lady Macbeth Seizing the Daggers ?exhibited 1812 by Henry Fuseli 1741-1825

OthelloMacbeth

Lyric Hammersmith, 8th October 2018

OK so this has its moments. By splicing together Othello and Macbeth, excising out extraneous context, sub-plot and characters, director Jude Christian has largely succeeded in achieving what she set out to do. That is to recast the two famous tragedies from the perspective of the female protagonists, Desdemona, Emilia and Bianca, the Ladies Macbeth and Macduff and, with a twist, the Three Witches. Without messing too much with the main plots. And with some occasionally breathtaking transfer of lines from one play to the other. However it is the Macbeth half that gets the best of the treatment, in large part because it benefits most from Basia Binkowska novel set design as it opens up. And this is definitely not for the purists who relish the verse. (I overhead some grumbling on the way out).

In part this reflected the cuts, in part the slightly uneven verse delivery on show and in part what happens when the psychological insight offered up by Shakespeare’s “roundest” characters is sold short. Samuel Collings as Iago/Macduff and, especially, Ery Nzaramba as Othello/Banquo had the most to lose. On the other hand there was much to learn from Kirsten Foster’s alert Desdemona and Caroline Faber’s measured Lady M, and the Witches, our two/three murdered/abused women from Othello. For this conceit, their revenge, as they unleash Lady M’s “unsex me now” monologue, and strumming on high pitched wires, is both clever and, in part, insightful.

Nagging away at me though is the belief that Shakespeare did offer up multiple vistas into what these women saw and felt whilst still getting on with the business of showing us that ambition, violence and jealousy are intrinsic, if ugly, facets of the human condition. I am not arguing that Shakespeare’s treatment of his female characters should be excused, the body count and violence meted out to them, tells its own story, just that, as in some much of his writing, there is insight and ambiguity when you look for it. And at least he has the excuse of history. The men today who continue to “fridge” women do not. After all Jude Christian in this mash-up, by using WS’s lines, is only highlighting what is already there in the text.

The cur-down version of Othello doesn’t need to tell us why “the Moor” is so hated, nor to have Iago poisoning his and our ears, but without it they come across a bit cartoonish. They are basically wankers from the off. The harsh brushed metal wall, there to mask the Macbeth reveal, only serves to highlight the static staging, and rushed delivery, with very rapid jump–cuts, of the first half of the first play. It does heat up post hanky mind you. Sandy Grierson squeezes a lot out of Cassio as do Kezrena James as Bianca and, especially, Melissa Johns as a blunt no-nonsense Northerner Emilia, who can sense what is coming. But this is maybe more to do with the “air-time” they have relative to standard interpretations rather than the actors really finding something new to say in the characters.

Sandy Grierson’s Macbeth does convince, because we know what to expect, because the call-back is more profound, because his is a fine performance and because the relationship with Caroline Faber’s Lady M stacks up. The early filleting of the text is less distracting, the motives of the power couple are still examined. Ms Faber makes chilling sense of the final Othello speech which falls to her. Even so at the end of the day it is Lady M who hatches the murderous plan, even if the narrative here is revenge for the wrongs of the first half. Once again I think there is more than enough complexity in Lady M as written by the Bard to make Jude Christian’s re-direction superfluous. Watch Judi Dench at work if you don’t believe me.

So a successful exercise on its own terms. I am just not sure that those terms were entirely necessary. New plays by women, telling women’s stories, with women creatives, would be more fruitful I think. (Lela & Co by Cordelia Lynn for example which Jude Christian directed). Or Jude Christian let loose on either one of this plays. Or a Caryl Churchill classic for example. This strand of wilful innovation has dogged the last few years of Sean Holmes’s stewardship of the Lyric. It hasn’t always worked as here. It will be interesting to see who, and what, comes next. It is a lovely theatre, thanks in large part to Mr Holmes’s industry, which deserves the best.