Measure for Measure at the Barbican Theatre review ****

Measure for Measure

Barbican Theatre, 8th January 2020

I like Measure for Measure. I find the weird cocktail of morality play and satirical “comedy” fascinating. No one comes out of it well, not even the ostensibly virtuous Isabella who goes into bat to save brother Claudio from death, but is prepared to sign off on a pretty dodgy deal to further this aim. The stench of corruption infects even the pure. This makes it a very “modern” play I guess, which is why it is getting multiple airings, with much to say, in the right hands, about the complexities of power and desire. Not quite at the top of Will’s oeuvre but certainly in the top ten. Which, for your edification, I set out below.

  1. Othello
  2. Hamlet
  3. Julius Caesar
  4. Much Ado About Nothing
  5. Richard III
  6. Coriolanus
  7. Henry VI, Part I, II, III
  8. Richard II
  9. Measure for Measure
  10. Pericles

What no Lear? Or Dream? Or Romeo and Juliet? Or Tempest? Or Twelfth Night? And Coriolanus included? And, are you mad mate, also Pericles? Well yes I like the latter’s daft fantasy travelogue, even those bits which stem from the unsubtle hand of George Wilkins, and Coriolanus strikes me as the very model of classical tragic hero, not prone to bouts of soul sharing pace Lear, Macbeth or your boy Hamlet. And the list shows pretty clearly that I like history plays. Power, politics, virtue, honour, social as well as individual psychology, the ruler and the ruled, corruption, narcissism, jealousy. These are the things that interest me. The dark side of human nature that Will explored forensically and which make many of these plays relevant to our, or any other, time. Don’t worry though. I am not a weirdo. Much Ado About Nothing is in there.

Of course much depends on the productions I have seen and I think I have been blessed in recent years in the history and “Roman” play departments in particular. Maybe one day I will see a Macbeth or Lear that truly persuades. That’s the thing with Shakespeare. Ultimately malleable, such that creatives and cast can usually find something, language, message, narrative, character, spectacle, in which to delight and illuminate.

As here. Gregory Doran is probably the most reliable Shakespearean director of our time, useful when you are the big cheese at the RSC. Maybe not the most spectacular of interpreters but always clear in purpose and execution. No gimmickry with this, which I think is his first stab at MFM, unless you count setting the play in fin de siecle Vienna, a point in the city’s history when virtue and corruption, intellect and expedience, reached there apogee, and, arguably laid the ground for what followed, good and bad, very bad, in much of the Western world through the first half of the C20. It is almost as if big Will, with his fictional late C16 fictional Vienna could see what the real city would become three centuries later. (I gather this connection has been made in previous productions).

Otherwise GD, and designer Stephen Brimson Lewis using the set structure common to the season’s productions of As You Like It and The Taming of the Shrew, with added monochrome projections as well as 1900s period costume, don’t muck about with text or cast. Paul Englishby’s score echoes with waltz. Escalus, in the hands of Claire Price, is re-gendered, as is the Provost (very effectively by Amanda Harris), but then again Mistress Overdone is, campily, handed to Graeme Brookes. But there is no wholesale gender politics reinterpretation here. And the text is, I think, complete so that said Overdone, Pompey (David Ajao versed with Afro-Caribbean sonority), Elbow (Michael Patrick) and the major, (Joseph Arkley especially as supercilious Lucio), and minor fops and fop-esses, all get their due, though the wordplay comedy requires our close attention.

RSC veteran Antony Byrne unsurprisingly nails the Duke/Friar, a man convinced of his own righteousness as he is blind to the flaws in his exercise of power, James Cooney is a quietly desperate Claudio and Lucy Phelps excels as the virtuous novice, at least until the scheme to uncover Angelo’s hypocrisy is set in motion, Isabella. But the whole is held in place by a marvellous performance by Sandy Grierson as said self-scourging Angelo, who really gets to the heart of said Angelo’s conflicted nature. Or is he, as here, not really quite as conflicted as he makes out, revelling in the opportunity to root out Vienna’s impurity whilst lusting after the eloquent nun. The ghost of an approving Freud was probably sitting in the gods.

Mr Grierson stood out in Jude Christian patchy OthelloMacbeth at the Lyric, Pity at the Royal Court and in As You Like It (of which more to come) in this RSC season but, unfortunately, I have missed him in the other RSC roles he has played in recent years, and on various stages in his native Scotland. I suggest you ensure you see him next time he treads any accessible boards.

The trick in MFM, assuming no re-interpretation, is having the two main characters in Isabella and Angelo both repelled by sex, but also, somehow, fascinated by the idea of desire, which drives the pivotal argument scenes between them. They are both, literally in joint prayer, holier than thou, at least until Angelo cracks. GD’s clear headed direction, and Lucy Phelps’s and Sandy Grierson’s delivery of the text, expertly unfolds the dichotomy between the sacred and the profane. And there is no hiding from the fact that Angelo, and, through his casual “proposal” at the end, the Duke, even maybe against his preference, are choosing to be rapists.

Lots of detail, well thought through, ambiguity and double binds not brushed away. This is not a problem play. The problem, as ever, is us humans. If you want a contemporary feel-gooder with a happy ending go see Everybody’s Talking About Jamie.

The Taming of the Shrew at the Barbican review ***

The Taming of the Shrew

Barbican Theatre, 2nd January 2020

What to do with Taming of the Shrew. Pretend the framing device with Sly deceived by Milord gets you off the hook. Not sure audiences buy that. Mine the text very carefully and add detail through direction which undermines the misogyny. That takes real skill. Ironically play up the “comedy”, and cast Kate and Petrucio’s final lines as a “show” to mask them coming together, and hope the audience keeps up. Play it straight, as nasty as you dare, even venturing into dark psycho-sexual territory, and hope the audience sees that Will S, as we surely must assume, him otherwise being the unparalleled oracle of the human condition, meant for us to recoil at both the story and our reaction to it. (Though remember John Fletcher, Shakespeare’s successor with The King’s Men felt compelled to write a now rarely performed response to Shrew, The Woman’s Prize, in which Petruchio’s second wife “tames” him). That can work but don’t be surprised if modern, as contemporary opinion did, criticises.

Or change gender as here? One of the best versions of the play that I saw was Edward Hall’s all male version for Propellor. Sly (Vince Leigh) became Petruchio, the misogyny is initially ridiculed in a genuinely funny production, but then becomes more menacing, punky Kate (Dan Wheeler) continually fights back making his/her final submission even uglier. The point being that Sly will continue the cycle of male violence outside the play.

In this RSC production directed by Justin Audibert, not for the first time, the genders are reversed, with Claire Price now a swaggering, derring-do Petruchia, and, names unchanged, Joseph Arkley the very pliant Katherine, the object of her undoubted affection, and James Cooney his more attractive and preening brother, Bianco. Padua becomes a matriarchy, pronouns are judiciously changed, gags retained, but it still doesn’t properly scrutinise the dominance/gaslighting power plays at the heart of the action. We already know what is wrong with or without role reversal.

Elsewhere though the inversion adds sheen, notably the wooing of Bianco by the salacious Gremia (Sophie Stanton complete with comedy glide pace Mark Rylance’s Olivia), the inept Lucentia (Emily Johnstone) aided by her capable sidekick/double Trania (Laura Elsworthy) and Hortensia (Amelia Donkor). The deceptions, rivalries and put downs all entertain. Amanda Harris as Mum Baptista, Amy Trigg as Lucentia’s other servant Biondella and Melody Brown as Vincentia, Lucentia’s mum all have fun with the roles.

The production looks terrific thanks to Stephen Brimston Lewis’s set (here seen to best effect when compared to the other RSC productions in the season) and Hannah Clark’s costumes. Composer Ruth Chan gets away with her “rock Renaissance” vibe. And Alice Cridland’s marshalling of wigs, hair and make-up mightily impressed. But none of this really solves for the fact that simply reversing and softening the genders and positing a social order that doesn’t, nor ever did, exist, can’t magic away the central offence. Which, in itself, is a lesson.

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