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

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

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Othello

Wilton’s Music Hall, 17th May 2017

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

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

So what made it so good despite my blinking ears?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory