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.

 

Henry V at the Tobacco Factory Bristol review *****

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Henry V

Tobacco Factory Theatre, 22nd September 2018

Hello. I feel another bout of hyperbole coming on. It could just be that cumulative exposure is making me realise what the smarter punters and all the luvvies have known for hundreds of years, that nothing comes close to Shakespeare. It could be that my first visit to the Tobacco Factory has revealed a near perfect space, intimate but airy, in the round, with the right vibe of industrial chic, (and a good value curry in Thali next door). It could be that the Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory company, under retiring founder Andrew Hilton, continues to churn out top quality productions of the Bard, and a few others, as it has done since its founding in 2000. Last year’s Othello set the ball rolling for me (Othello at Wilton’s Music Hall review ****) and I now intend to make a note in the diary for future pilgrimages to Bristol.

However I think the special ingredient in this particular production lies in the direction of Elizabeth Freestone. Ms Freestone is not afraid to offer up a contemporary slant on big Will, which usually works for me. Indeed she is the director behind Jeanie O’Hare’s composition of Queen Margaret at the Royal Exchange Manchester as we speak. Queen Margaret is one of Shakespeare’s best, no question, and I gather the magnificent jade Anouka is doing the business in the title role, though she will need to to get anywhere near the visceral walloping Sophie Okonedo gave the character in The Hollow Crown. (Can’t wait to see ms Okonedo as Cleo at the NT which the critics are loving).

What is patriotism? How to tread the line between the glorification and the senseless horror of war? What makes a “national hero” and how does this get weaved into a nation’s view of itself? How does Henry go from playboy Hal to warrior king? Is he just a cipher, whatever we want him to be? Sincere, scheming or both simultaneously? How to think about Katherine? Simpering pawn or power broker? A lot of good questions to ask at any time but especially when a bunch of utter cocks are playing dangerously fast and loose with our national identity. Once again Shakespeare shows he is the man for all ages when it comes to shedding light on the business of politics.

Lily Arnold’s blissfully simple set, four metal cages filled with stones, is put to work as battlefield and meeting hall, military and political space. A quartet of strip-lights, (recycled from Othello I’ll warrant), megaphone, radio and mic, suitcases and kit-bags, bottles of voddy, clip-boards, melancholic Union Jack and Tricolore. It’s all you really need. Less can so often be more in both the history plays and the tragedies. Go with the standard battle-dress/fatigues of so many modern-dress productions because it just works, but then add some twists to underscore the symbolism. A tutu dress for Mistress Quickly, a sharp suit for Cambridge and the King of France, a T shirt for King Henry, “the Artist formerly known as Prince” – I loved that – and turn Katherine into an imposing skinhead with elegant purple frock-coat suit and DM’s to match.

Cut out superfluous roles, in this interpretation, and double up (most intriguingly Chorus/Burgundy, Canterbury/King of France, Cambridge/Fluellen, York/Bourbon and Nym/Orleans). The armies are interchangeable after all. Lose a few of those pesky Dukes on both sides, Westmoreland, Exeter and York on the English side, with just Cambridge to face the traitorous music, and Bourbon and Orleans, and eventually Burgundy, on the French side. Make Exeter a skilled, female, negotiator. Slim down the English and French armies as well, and lose Queen Isabel and, in a real coup, merge the Dauphin into Katherine (and thus make her relationship with Orleans potentially very weird). And turn the Chorus into a detached, Bristolian, history lecturer.

Start off with a big party night choreographed to Boys Will Be Boys. Make Henry physically and metaphorically begin to stand tall as we move through the battles and make Katherine fight him and the English tooth and nail to the end. Don’t make too much fuss about those tennis balls. Let Henry whizz through the “breach speech”. Turn Katherine’s comedy English/French body part translation into a bitter and furious lament for lover Orleans which scares Henry (and us) witless. See Montjoy humiliated in defeat. Watch Henry only just keep it together after the brutal dispatch of Bardolph then wipe away the tears to receive the patronising French embassy. Ensure maximum ambivalence for our Harry as he wanders the camp for this is surely where the mantle of power is most keenly felt. Believe that Henry is probably bluffing when he threatens the citizens of Harfleur so belligerently.

The comedy relief of Pistol, Nym, Bardolph, Quickly and the Boy doesn’t fare quite as well in this production but their cannon fodder status, even as accident, certainly does. When Exeter reads out the list of the English dead at Agincourt the Boy is “none else of name” but we know his pointless sacrifice. A comparatively modest Harry, as here, makes Pistol’s over the top grandiosity less of a counterpoint. Fluellen is as annoying as ever though.

Now young Ben Hall has a bit of history here having played Henry V at the Guildhall when a student. He obviously has the genes for the theatre being the grandson of Sir Peter, nephew of Edward, (now moving on from Hampstead Theatre), and son of producer Christopher. You probably know him as the bespectacled tutor of Gerry and would be suitor of Margo in The Durrells off the telly, (a Hall family affair of sorts). He left an impression in the recent RSC Coriolanus but here he steps up and given a very interesting performance. Deliberatively tentative and awkward in parts, not entirely conversational but certainly not a master of oratory, with shaved head and red beard, he is believable as soldier if not, even in victory, as king. He spits out the lines too rapidly at the start but as Henry rises to the challenge so his speech becomes more measured, though never entirely, assured, as his disturbing “wooing” of Katharine at the end shows. He is not Olivier’s square-jawed hero, Branagh’s reborn statesman or Lester/Hytner’s war criminal hardman. Ben Hall’s Hal is constantly “wrestling with the moral responsibility of what it means to be a good leader” as Ms Freestone says in the programme. That crown certainly still lies uneasy on that head.

Offering us an androgynous Katherine who is near Henry’s equal in terms of destiny, passion, integrit,y as well as duplicity and xenophobia, with the same hair-cut to boot, is inspired. It is hard to take your eyes off Heledd Gywnn. She prowls the stage with an air of aggressive disdain, coming on all Joan of Arc like, (she popped up a decade, and one play, later). You just know that marriage isn’t going to solve anything at the end.

I was also drawn to the performances of Joanne Howarth as the patient Chorus who at one point is moved to tears, Alice Barclay’s largely composed Exeter, Luke Grant’s York/Bourbon, Zachary Powell’s Nym/Orleans, David Osmond’s verbose Fluellen and Melody Brown’s seasoned Gower. The re-gendering here doesn’t shout out. It just works.

Matthew Graham’s contrasting lighting design and Giles Thomas’s martial though still unobtrusive sound design all contributed to this thoughtful interpretation and experienced movement director Lucy Cullingford, even with this thinned out cast, was at the top of here game. There are some astonishing tableaux in this production, though nothing feels consciously artful. Elizabeth Freestone and Lily Arnold took visual inspiration from the battlefield art of WWI, (go see the Aftermath exhibition on now at Tate Britain for some of the most striking). I can see that and it also reminds us just how after this corner of Northern France has been the host of carnage. (Aftermath at Tate Britain review ****).

For me this is a near perfect production, considered, insightful, innovative and genuinely relevant. The company is drilled to perfection and battle hardy and it looks and moves beautifully. Like I say at the top, it could just be that nobody does it better than Will, but there are many ways to skin the ambiguity of this particular dramatic cat, and it still needs an inspired creative team and cast to bring the verse to life. STF is taking the production on tour so if you are lucky enough to be anywhere near these venues on these dates I implore you to get tickets.

9-13 Oct – Stephen Joseph Theatre Scarborough
16-20 Oct – Dukes Theatre, Lancaster
23-27 Oct – Malvern Theatres
30-3 Nov – Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds
6 -10 Nov – Exeter Northcott

The Two Noble Kinsman at the Globe Theatre review ****

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The Two Noble Kinsman

Globe Theatre, 12th June 2018

I am not too keen on the Globe. Actually that is putting it mildly. I really don’t like it. For the simple reason that it is so bloody uncomfortable. I know that is the point. Sam Wanamaker’s vision of a re-creation of Shakespeare’s original entertainment house would hardly work with plush seats and perfect sight-lines but it does’t stop my bum from numbing, my back from aching, my knees from cracking and my attention from being distracted by the shuffling of the even more unfortunate folk in the Yard and the roar of the planes overhead. Which means, however good the production, and however atmospheric the mood created, (and it certainly can be atmospheric), I am normally too unsettled to totally commit. My fault for being a fat, whingeing curmudgeon.

There are times though when I get tempted and this was one of them. I had never see “tragicomedy/romance/pastoral” The Two Noble Kinsmen before and the prospect of Barrie Rutter directing, and taking a scalpel to the preposterously over-written text, was just too inviting. I also reasoned, correctly, that it wouldn’t be packed to the rafters given this was not Shakespeare’s finest hour. TTNK was written in conjunction with John Fletcher, first performed in 1613/14 and first published in 1634, so it didn’t appear in Heminges and Condell’s First Folio. Probably because they didn’t have a decent text to hand and they didn’t deem it worthy given the co-authorship. Shame. Maybe then it wouldn’t get such a bad press, along wth Pericles, and maybe then we would also have a version of the lost Cardenio (based on the Don Quixote legend) to savour.

The mash up of Chaucer’s Kings Tale, via Greek tragedy, latin epic, English masque, and Italian romance is daft, no doubt about that, but no more so than some of Big Will’s other “comedies”. Well maybe not, but the tale of firm friends, Palamon, (who also appears briefly in Johnson’s Bartholomew Fair), and Arcite, fighting over the object of their affection, Emilia, really does have its moments. By this time Will S was no longer a sure-fire hit-maker and Fletcher may well have been drafted in to stop him going all Tempest-y introspective again. Fletcher’s contribution brings the knockabout comedy stemming from the infatuation of the (unnamed) Jailer’s daughter for Palamon and the Midsummer Night’s Dream style rustics entertainment. Indeed there is plenty that is lifted from the Dream, unsurprising given that was also inspired by A Knights Tale: the regal presence of Theseus and Hippolyta, lovers who have made less than ideal choices and another trip to that Athenian wood. Shakespeare’s verse had by now become quite knotty in parts so, in some way, the recognisable comedy makes it easier to digest and this is what Mr Rutter alights on as he sharpens up the text to the benefit of the plot.

Post prologue, we begin with the three mourning Queens, (here played by Sue Devaney, Melissa James and Kat Rose-Martin), who have come to Athens to plead to Theseus (Jude Akuwudike) and Hippolyta (Moyo Akande) to help avenge the deaths of their husbands at the hands of King Creon of Thebes (who won’t give them a proper burial – he has form on that front). Theseus in Dream always strikes me as just a way of getting from A to B plot wise, (though obviously the actor gets compensated in the form of altar ego Oberon), but here there was a bit more opportunity for Jude Akuwidike to actually direct proceedings which he seized admirably. Moyo Akande was an imperious Hippolyta helped by her gorgeous costumes, (Jessica Worrall’s designs here were marvellous  and all credit to the makers – Sarah Campbell, Rose Chandler, Charles Hanrahan, Aislinn Luton, Phil Reynolds and Janie Stephenson). I don’t know if the height difference between Moyo Akande and Ellora Torchia as Emilia, her fictional sister, is deliberate or just an outcome but it does provide, as with the casting of Francesca Mills as the Jailer’s Daughter, and that between the three Queens, further texture, (if not the deliberate, slightly sour, humour of Hermia and Helena’s confrontation in Dream).

Anyway Theseus goes to war and Creon’s nephews, Palamon and Arcite,  are captured. I read a review which said Paul Stocker and Bryan Dick, (last seen by me in a state of inspired confusion in Great Apes at the Arcola), played the firm friends like a couple of gap year hooray-henry’s, which is wittily accurate. That is not to downplay their performances, just that when the opportunity to ham it up a bit was presented, as when they first clap eyes on Emilia through the cell window, or when they meet again in the wood to resume the bickering, they grab it with both hands. Very funny.

Arcite is set free, banished but literally wrestles his way into a position as Emila’s bodyguard, as you do. Palamon too is sprung from clinkey but this time with the help of the Jailer’s Daughter who has fallen for him. Palamon and Arcite decide to fight it out for the hand of Emilia. The Jailer’s Daughter goes bonkers, Ophelia-like. The yokels, led by the Quince-like Schoolmaster (Jos Vantyler) put on their performance, “aided” by the mad woman, and here decked out in full Green Man, morris dancing English pastoral mode. With baboon. Apparently not the only play of the era that called for this particular primate. The official tournament between the two lads, decreed by Theseus, follows, with everyone asking the Gods to intervene, which, via various twists of fate, they do.

As ever in Shakespeare love at first sight is the standard modus operandi, (unless, of course it isn’t as in Much Ado). In TTNK though the love plots are unadorned, no mistaken identities, (well OK maybe one utterly transparent one), servants intervening or pretty sonnets. We end with two marriages but they are peremptory. Emilia is indifferent to the point of blase about which man she gets and the Jailer’s Daughter rewards the persistence, and dodgy impression, of the Wooer (here Jon Trenchard) after the Doctor’s unusual prescription.

All in all TTNK has the air of a partially successful comeback album. It is surprising just how good it is, in the right directorial hands, and a lot of the magic is still there, the band never having it lost it, but it is a little too indulgent, the main songwriter is a bit too preoccupied, and may just be mocking his own legacy, it is a bit too loose and you wouldn’t want to listen to it as often as the “classic albums”. It even has a subtle callback to the early years (big Will’s first ever pressing, Two Gentleman of Verona). Not quite done just for the money but with a strong sense of “take it or leave it”.

Barrie Rutter, very wisely, seeks to play up the comedy and dial down any tragedy. Jacobean comedy by now had become a little more sophisticated when compared to WS’s earlier comedies which, in the main exchanges between the “courtly” posher characters, encourages a more knowing air. This does mean that by the time we get to the end we don’t really care about the death of Arcite. It also places a little less weight on the gay sub-text of Palamon and Arcite’s friendship and when Emilia is graphically remembering her friend Favina. The two male characters, like Demetrius and Lysander in Dream are pretty similar though here the performances and build of our two created some distinction. The exchanges between Emilia and Hippolyta and Hippolyta and Theseus are similarly “flat”.

All this means that the undoubted star of the show is the Jailer’s Daughter who has plenty of opportunity to shine and shine she does here. Francesca Mills is a wonderful actress and this performance makes a strong case for adding the Jailer’s Daughter to the list of “rounded” comic A-listers in Shakespeare’s roster. OK so maybe not up there with Falstaff and Malvolio but the equal of Bottom surely. Ms Mills has natural comic timing, amazing energy and was able to convey the Daughter’s “love-sickness” convincingly and sympathetically. Her diction, through the perfectly judged “northern” accent was natural and clear, and she conveyed real passion, not the sometimes rather pathetic attachment of other Shakespeare women.

Mr Rutter has ensured that music plays a big part in this production enlisting the skills of genius folk composer Eliza Carthy, choreographer Ewan Wardrop and a band led by Andy Moore who get properly involved. He has also cast Matt Henry as Pirithous, Theseus’s bosom buddy, who is, by trade, a scion of musical theatre and it shows, as he provides the backbone to key musical interludes. The final ensemble set piece is properly, joyously, foot-tapping to the point where I forgot my aches and pains and left the Globe smiling.

Which, I can assure you, doesn’t always happen.