Review: The Comedy of Errors, RSC via Digital Theatre

“Are my discourses dull? Barren my wit?”

Digital Theatre specialises in providing recordings of plays, captured as-live and available to watch either online or to download onto your computer. They have established links with some top theatre companies and so is building up an interesting collection of plays for viewing. I became aware of Digital Theatre back at Christmastime, and downloaded my first play (Far From The Madding Crowd). It has however remained on my hard-drive unwatched for a number of reasons. But with the offer to get a free download of the RSC’s The Comedy of Errors through the Times newspaper, I decided to revisit the site and actually get round to watching something.

There’s been a lot of debate about the merits of videoed theatre over live theatre: my personal view is that there’s ample room for both in the world. The recordings are there to supplement the live experience, not replace it, something that seems to be lost on much of the commenters in the press. These kind of initiatives, along with the National Theatre’s cinema showings of some plays, offer a great opportunity to expand the audience for these shows, and whilst the frisson of live performance may be lost, I can guarantee that whoever saw Phèdre at the cinema would have had a much better view of the faces of the actors than I did from the circle of the Lyttleton. Continue reading “Review: The Comedy of Errors, RSC via Digital Theatre”

Review: Macbeth, Cheek by Jowl at the Barbican

“If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done quickly” 

And first a moan. I’d intentionally booked front row seats for this back in December, so upon arrival I was a little surprised to find that there was another row of seats in front of ours, row AA which is set a little closer to the ground but with nowhere near sufficient a rake to prevent people’s heads being seriously in the way. This extra row was added in to sell extra tickets due to it being a sellout and whilst I’m happy for the Barbican with their success here, I’m most annoyed that it subsequently affected my enjoyment of the evening.

Cheek by Jowl return to London with their interpretation of Macbeth, Shakespeare’s examination of the cost of chasing power and limitless ambition without responsibility, using their trademark inventiveness to create an otherworldly experience. Setting up in the Silk Street Theatre at the Barbican, there is excellent use of the space throughout the play: the opening haze-filled scene seems to take place in a seemingly endless void, later on the rear wall is used most effectively with spotlights and shadows thrown up. So much is left dark or in shadow, the audience is left to let their imagination fill in the gaps. Continue reading “Review: Macbeth, Cheek by Jowl at the Barbican”

Review: Henry V, Southwark Playhouse

“I am glad thou canst speak speak no better english, for if thou couldst, thou wouldst find me such a plain king”
 

Ooh, this whingeing thing is hard to shake… After my exploits at the Adelphi on Monday, I had to take a couple of days downtime from the theatre to recover and reassess the world in the light of love having actually died a death right in front of me. To try and restore my customary mood, a trip was made to Henry V at the Southwark Playhouse. A company of seven actors act out the radically edited play, covering several characters each, using, and I quote “striking physical imagery, innovative movement sequences and direct contact with the audience” to “reimagine [this as] a life-sized board game. What could possibly go wrong?

One is given a pass along with your ticket which allocates one to either the English or the French army: this governs where one sits in the theatre and there’s a little playing along too, as we’re exhorted to rise when the King first arrives and it’s all jolly fun initially. The floor is covered with a large scale map of England and France, and the seating is arranged around all four sides, creating the stage, or game-board in the middle. This is where Shakespeare’s play of fast-maturing Henry V’s attempts to conquer France, culminating in the famous battle of Agincourt, is told by our players in a really quite bizarre fashion. Continue reading “Review: Henry V, Southwark Playhouse”

Review: Measure for Measure, Almeida

“Condemn the fault, and not the actor of it?”

First things first: this has a double revolve, a double revolve people!! Two bits that move independently from each other! And a table that rises up from the ground! And now breathe… So, from the Shakespeare play I know the best, to one which I’ve never seen before in two days. Measure for Measure sees one of the largest casts ever at at the Almeida, 17 if you’re wondering, and I caught a preview last night.

Set in a Vienna which is riven with sexual depravity and political misdeeds, the Duke of the city decides to leave it in the hands of his hardline deputy Angelo, whilst remaining about incognito in order to see how he fares in restoring order. He disguises himself as a friar where he encounters the highly religious Isabella, who is faced with the prospect of sacrificing her virginity in order to save her brother’s life, that brother having been sentenced to death by Angelo for getting a girl pregnant before they were married. There is then all sorts of gameplaying that ensues, both political and personal, as we rush headlong to the conclusion which may or may not include lots of weddings. Continue reading “Review: Measure for Measure, Almeida”

Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Rose Theatre Kingston

“Is there no play to ease the anguish of a torturing hour?”

She’s back!! I’m referring of course to Aunty Jean who popped down for the evening for some dinner and a little theatrical amusement. The play in question was A Midsummer Night’s Dream featuring a reunited Peter Hall directing and Judi Dench as Titania, 40 years on since their last collaboration in these two roles. “The wisest aunt” casually regaled me with her (not sad) tales of seeing Peter Hall’s redefining production of this self-same play and McKellen and Dench in Macbeth as we sipped some vile pinot grigio at the Rose Theatre in Kingston, anticipating the treats in store and giggling at the warning of the use of ‘haze’ in the performance.

The conceit is that Dench is actually playing Elizabeth I, as she does in a brief wordless prologue where she opens a performance of a play, who then materialises as Titania in the same dress. It’s an interesting take which works almost entirely due to the warmth radiating from her performance. The scenes when she is bewitched are just delightful, her coos and chuckles with her paramour display all the ecstasy of a lust-fuelled passion simply through the strength of her verse-reading. She also displays some considerable stamina: at one point laying slumbering with her neck in a most awkward position for such a long time, and let us not forget she is 75 now, that I did worry for her joints: I don’t think I could have stayed that still for that long, at least without falling asleep!

Continue reading “Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Rose Theatre Kingston”

Review: Richard III, Riverside Studios

“Oh thou well skilled in curses, stay awhile
And teach me how to curse mine enemies”

So after a nice break away from London, and seven whole days without a play, 2010’s theatregoing resumed with a trip to Richard III at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith. Part of a season of plays entitled Desire and Destruction presented by the Love and Madness company, an ensemble of 10 actors are covering 3 plays around these ever-resonant themes, of which Richard III is the second to start (Fool For Love opened last week).

One of Shakespeare’s most celebrated works, Richard III is the story of the physically deformed Duke of Gloucester, a fiercely ambitious prince of the House of York whose hunger for the throne leads him down a Machiavellian path of endless murder, betrayals and general naughtiness as nothing will stop him from gaining what he so desires, even though it lays so far from him. Shakespeare played fast and loose with history in writing this play and so it lends itself to interpretation quite nicely (this production is presented in modern dress), being much more a study in uncontrolled ambition and the power of ‘spin’ in order to manipulate situations both publicly and privately to one’s own good. Continue reading “Review: Richard III, Riverside Studios”

TV Review: Hamlet, RSC

“What are thou that usurp’st this time of night”
 

The recent RSC production of Hamlet, starring David Tennant, has been filmed and was broadcast on BBC2 on Boxing Day afternoon, a curious piece of scheduling but thanks to the beauty of iPlayer, I was able to watch it as my leisure this evening. Rather than filming the play as it was performed on stage, the original cast deliver this modern-dress and modern-day adaption on location which gives it a much more filmic feel, especially with some of the camera tricks used, such as observing the action from the CCTV cameras.

David Tennant really is rather good here. His Hamlet is both wiry and wired, constantly moving and shifting, mimicking those around him with a quick wit but all-the-while suffused with a precipitous edge. The sense of danger is never far from this often bare-footed prince, but in my limited Hamlet experience, I did miss a little of the brooding intensity that Jude Law brought to the role. Equally strong though was Patrick Stewart’s coldly calculating Claudius. From his opening scene, there is no doubt that he has Hamlet’s cards marked and employs a chilling restraint throughout which was far scarier than any amount of raging. And Oliver Ford Davies’ Polonius was also good value for money, flirting between the doddery old dear of the court and the canny politician keeping himself in favour. Continue reading “TV Review: Hamlet, RSC”

Review: Twelfth Night, RSC

“If this were play’d upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction”

There’s a pleasing circularity to this visit to Twelfth Night for me: one of the first plays I saw this year was the Donmar’s West End production of Twelfth Night, a trip marred by horrendous winter storms and travel chaos, so it seems right that one of my last trips to the theatre this year was to the RSC’s version of the same play, once again during some insane winter weather. Fortunately, my journey was less traumatic this time, so I was able to make a more reasoned verdict on the play.

As one would expect from the RSC, and from a production that has already done a Stratford run, it is slickly done and all the performers feel and look supremely confident in their roles. Staged in a incense-laden, Turkish-inspired set, it looks amazing and the costumes are rich and opulent (Orsino’s red robe is a sight to behold). And this all contributed to me being much more amenable to giving the suspension of disbelief necessary for this play, a matter much helped by some canny casting and dressing of Viola and Sebastian who for once really did look like they could be twins.

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Review: The Roman Tragedies, Toneelgroep Amsterdam at the Barbican

“Who amongst us here would not want to be a Roman?”

At first glance, this might not seem the easiest way to spend an evening: three Shakespeare plays back-to-back, lasting six hours and performed entirely in Dutch. However The Roman Tragedies is probably one of the most exhilarating theatrical experiences of the year. Presented here at the Barbican by Toneelgroep Amsterdam, the foremost Dutch theatre company, Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra are performed consecutively, as per their timelines which gives a pleasing flow to the evening: there’s a real sense of a grand narrative to the whole evening, of the developing nature of politics and democracy and how it is communicated to the masses.

It opens on a large stage with the cast spread over a number of sofas and ministages, and the play is delivered in a normal fashion with surtitles provided on a large screen above. Then as the first break approached, some consuls appeared in the middle of the audience to deliver their scene, giving you the first indication that this would be no ordinary production. During that first break (rather than normal intervals, the action is interspersed with short breaks), the audience were invited to come onto stage and watch from the sofas: there was also a bar where you could buy a drink and computers to check your email, you could really immerse yourself in the action and become part of the play, a citizen of Rome if you will, whilst the political debates of war and democracy rage around you. I particularly loved the scrolling news flashes which reminded us of the length of time until the deaths of each of the key characters, it was so witty I didn’t even mind that it was 295 minutes until Cleopatra’s death! Continue reading “Review: The Roman Tragedies, Toneelgroep Amsterdam at the Barbican”

Review: Cymbeline, Arts

“Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust”

One of William Shakespeare’s later, and lesser well-known plays, Cymbeline is presented here at the Arts Theatre by the National Youth Theatre, in a rare sojourn out of their regular summer performances.

 
It is not really hard to see why Cymbeline is one of the lesser known works of the Bard. The story feels like a random selection of typical Shakespearean events, flung together haphazardly, and then tied up with a bow at the end in a rather laboured fashion. There’s cross-dressing princesses, wagers about virtue, long-lost princes, potions that feign death, wicked stepmothers, lifelong betrayals, all things that hark back to previous works and little that felt fresh here, not least because of the confusing tone of the play. Continue reading “Review: Cymbeline, Arts”