Blogged: shaking up Shakespeare

I have a mixed time with some shaken-up Shakespeares – othellomacbeth at the Lyric Hammersmith; Twelfth Night at the Young Vic; Much Ado About Nothing at the Watford Palace; and Measure for Measure at the Donmar

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

I’m the first to say that modern adaptations of Shakespeare need to do something different to justify their place in today’s theatre ecology. Lord knows there’s been enough traditional renditions of his work, and still they come, and even if there are always going to be people coming for the first time, there’s also a real need to make his plays speak to contemporary society in a way that is unafraid to challenge his reputation. It is perhaps no surprise that it is female directors and directors of colour who are at the forefront of doing just that and there have been four key examples in London most recently – Jude Christian’s othellomacbeth at the Lyric Hammersmith, Kwame Kwei-Armah and Shaina Taub’s Twelfth Night at the Young Vic, Brigid Larmour’s Much Ado About Nothing at the Watford Palace and Josie Rourke’s Measure for Measure at the Donmar.

And of course, having demanded that this is what directors do, I found myself disappointed at the majority of these, for some of the same reasons and some different ones too. Perhaps the most formally daring is Christian’s othellomacbeth which smashes together the two tragedies to create something which ends up less than the sum of its constituent parts. Its intentions are certainly noble, seeking to highlight the female voices in these plays and give them prominence. But the reality is that in the two substantially reduced treatments here, everything becomes diminished, not least narrative clarity. There’s one cracking idea which connects the two, which you suspect might have inspired the whole production, but ultimately, it is not enough to hang the whole thing on. Continue reading “Blogged: shaking up Shakespeare”

Review: Folk, Watford Palace

“Sing me something holy, something wholly inappropriate”

One day, Tom Wells will start writing about something other than misfits in the East Riding of Yorkshire but until he does, we’re still being blessed with minor-key gems like Folk (after Jumpers for Goalposts, The Kitchen Sink, and Me, As A Penguin), reaching the end of its tour here in this co-production between Birmingham Repertory Theatre , Hull Truck Theatre and Watford Palace Theatre.

From the front room of her Withernsea home, Irish nun Winnie has been subtly changing the world for those around her. Her sweary, spoon-playing ways have long been complemented by Stephen, a mournful musical middle-aged man who counts her as his only friend and when the teenage Kayleigh comes crashing into their lives, it is music that proves the force that slowly bonds them together. Continue reading “Review: Folk, Watford Palace”

Review: Poppy + George, Watford Palace

“If this is indeed where you were heading, then it appears with all success you have arrived”

There’s something rather gorgeous at the heart of Poppy + George, a recognition that even passing acquaintances can leave as lasting impressions as the deepest of friendships; a reminder too that even if a play can be over and done with in a couple of hours, its impact can linger far beyond. So it is for the group of people who find each other in Diane Samuels’ new play for the Watford Palace Theatre, with music by Gwyneth Herbert.

Their safe haven is a warehouse deep in the East End in 1919, where Russian Jewish (with a bit of Chinese) tailor Smith plies his trade and entertains his friends nattily dressed chauffeur George Sampson and Great War veteran Tommy Johns who is trying to resurrect his fading music hall career. Into their world comes Poppy Wright, a Northern girl looking for a fresh start from a life in service, though the love she finds turns out not to be quite what she expected. Continue reading “Review: Poppy + George, Watford Palace”

Review: Coming Up, Watford Palace

“You don’t know who you are”

The search for identity is one which is relatable for many people but especially to those of a mixed heritage – if some in your family support Man U and others Man City, who do you support; if one parent is Christian and the other a Jew, where does the ball drop; or as in the case of Neil D’Souza’s play for the Watford Palace Theatre Coming Up, if you’re a British-born Indian what loyalties do you have to the homeland of your parents. 

D’Souza’s Alan is a businessman whose call centres are actually based in Mumbai but despite frequent trips there, he hasn’t been visiting the family members who live there due to an estrangement with his father. After his death, Alan finally makes it to see his elderly aunt and cousin – in a marvellously awkward meeting – who give him a memoir his father wrote which allows him to revisit and confront a past with which he is remarkably at odds. Continue reading “Review: Coming Up, Watford Palace”

Review: Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern, Watford Palace

“If she’s innocent, we’re simply sending her to God early”

The most powerful image of Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern comes courtesy of the centrepiece of James Button’s design, a timber structure illuminated as a church cross on one side and extending as a noose-bearing gallows on the other. It encapsulates the central thesis of Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s play – that twisted symbiosis between the Church and the witch-hunts that scarred society for so long – with an eloquence that characterises much of Ria Parry’s production, which is about to embark on a considerable UK tour.

An Out of Joint, Watford Palace Theatre and Arcola Theatre co-production, in association with Eastern Angles, Lenkiewicz based her drama on real-life events in a Hertfordshire village, an all-too-recognisable tale of society seized by collective fervour. It’s been several decades since any witch hunts but when tragedy falls on the village of Walkern, suspicion quickly falls upon the local cunning woman Jane Walkern and her herbal remedies amid whispers of the return of witchcraft, stoked by new priest Samuel Crane who is determined, quite literally, to get his woman. Continue reading “Review: Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern, Watford Palace”

Review: Jefferson’s Garden, Watford Palace

“We have to ask you to be gender-blind, colour-blind, age-blind, shape-blind, but in all other ways perceptive”

I actually saw a reading of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s new play Jefferson’s Garden in 2013 when it formed part of the extracurricular activities surrounding the run of Out of Joint’s Our Country’s Good at the St James and blogged quite extensively about it as it was a play that really struck me as one to look out for. Less than two years down the line, it has now received its first production at the hands of director Brigid Larmour and the Watford Palace Theatre where it runs until 21st February and doesn’t appear to have any life anticipated beyond that.

Which is a shame as I do think it is a fine piece of writing. Wertenbaker’s history play takes place during the American War of Independence but makes a sterling case for how the compromises in the creation of a society then have echoed throughout time to become the issues that still blight the USA today. She also plays with the way in which historical narratives are constructed (theatrical ones too) through the voice of a Chorus who stalk the action, identifying the difficulties of converting the dreams of idealism into the practicalities of the real world. Continue reading “Review: Jefferson’s Garden, Watford Palace”

Review: The Angry Brigade, Watford Palace

“We are slowly destroying the long tentacles of the state machine…”

You gotta love a playtext that starts with a communiqué from the author and that’s just what James Graham does with The Angry Brigade. Split into two parts, The Branch, which sees a Special Branch team trying to catch a Baader-Meinhof type group of British terrorists, and The Brigade which sees them their attempts to avoid capture, Graham offers up a world of interpretation in how they might be played, ending with the slyly anarchic note “perhaps just do what you like”.

James Grieve’s production for Paines Plough plays The Branch first – following the police investigation into bombs that have been left in strategic locations like the Royal Albert Hall and the home of a government minister. A special unit is set up to try and get into the minds of what turns out to be a group of homegrown anarchists by following (some of) their example. It’s really rather funny and Harry Melling’s biscuit dunking is something I will cherish for life! Continue reading “Review: The Angry Brigade, Watford Palace”

Review: Happy Birthday Sunita, Watford Palace

 
Kicking off a substantial tour that will take in Delhi and Mumbai as well as numerous UK theatres, Harvey Virdi’s Happy Birthday Sunita opens at Watford Palace Theatre and ever curious, a cheeky trip to a Sunday matinée felt in order. This Rifco Arts production centres on a British Punjabi family as they gather to celebrate a surprise 40th birthday celebration for Sunita. All is going well but the birthday girl is nowhere to be seen… 

For as with any family, the Johals have their secrets and dramas and lifelong resentments and as the drinks starts to flow, truths start to spill out over the plates of curries and rotis. There’s a real sense of the family bond here though, no matter how strained it gets – in the blink of an eye, brother and sister go from bickering to bhangra dancing, the mother who makes sure all the cooking is done before unleashing her own shocking revelation.  Continue reading “Review: Happy Birthday Sunita, Watford Palace”

Review: An Intervention, Watford Palace

“I didn’t – 
I never – 
You would.
‘I would’.’”

Is it OK for one country to intercede in the affairs of another, even with the most liberal of intentions? If your best friend starts dating someone who you think is eminently unsuitable, is the best thing to do to tell them? A Paines Plough co-production, Mike Bartlett’s new play (and boy is he cranking them out) conflates these two questions to look at the varied nature of friendship and how it changes in response to politics, pressures and the passing of time. 

An Intervention is a two-hander, the characters simply named A and B, reflecting the universality of the issues at hand. Here, A is played with real gusto by Rachael Stirling, vibrantly passionate in the things she believes in (the anti-war movement for one) and the right to keep a full drink in her hand. John Hollingworth’s B on the other hand, is much more reserved, pragmatic in his outlook and it is he whose relationship (with the unseen Hannah) changes so much. Continue reading “Review: An Intervention, Watford Palace”

Review: Override, Watford Palace Theatre

“A bit of augmentation does not make you a flipping robot”

Stacey Gregg’s Override is the only one of the plays in Watford Palace’s Ideal World season, designed to question the impact of the rise of technology on humanity, to venture into the realms of what could be loosely described as sci-fi. Mark and Violet live in a near-future world where ‘augmentation’ is the norm to eradicate human disabilities and imperfections but when she discovers she is pregnant, they opt out of this society and move to a rural backwater in order to have a completely natural birth free from interference.

But in a world where this has become commonplace, it isn’t so easy to fully disconnect and when Violet reveals that she underwent a procedure as a child, the couple are forced to confront what it really means to step off the grid. Gregg explores this with pressing and pertinent questions – what does it mean to be normal? can one be augmented and yet still possess a true sense of self? what level of intervention is acceptable, especially in cases of disability? And pleasingly she doesn’t provide easy answers either. Continue reading “Review: Override, Watford Palace Theatre”