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.

 

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

geograph-2470375-by-Steve-Daniels

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 ****

globe_theatre_innenraum

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.