10 of my top moments of the decade

Ever behind the curve, I present 10 of my top moments in a theatre over the last ten years (plus a few bonus extra ones because whittling down this list was hard, and it will probably be different tomorrow anyway!)

© James Bellorini

Extraordinary Public Acts for a National Theatre

The establishment of the Public Acts programme at the National Theatre offered up something sensational in Pericles, an initiative designed to connect grassroot community organisations with major theatres, resulting in a production that swept over 200 non-professional performers onto the stage of the Olivier to create something that moved me more than 99% of professional productions.  A truly joyous and momentous occasion. 

Honourable mention: this year’s musical take on As You Like It proved just as heart-swellingly beautiful over at the Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch. Continue reading “10 of my top moments of the decade”

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”

Casting news aplenty!

I round up some of the recent casting news, including Queen Margaret at the Royal Exchange, Wasted at the Southwark Playhouse, Measure for Measure at the Donmar and The Woods at the Royal Court.

Shakespeare wrote more lines for Queen Margaret than he did for King Lear yet we know very little of her. Jeanie O’Hare re-acquaints us with one of Shakespeare’s major but rarely performed characters in her new play Queen Margaret. In a production that draws on original language from Shakespeare, director Elizabeth Freestone and Jade Anouka as Margaret, retell an iconic moment in British History through the eyes of the extraordinary Margaret of Anjou. This captivating exploration of The Wars of the Roses seen through the eyes of this astonishing, dangerous and thrilling woman opens the Royal Exchange’s Autumn Winter 2018/19 Season.

Anouka is joined by Islam Bouakkaz (Prince Edward/Rutland), Lorraine Bruce (York), Samuel Edward-Cook (Suffolk/Clifford), Dexter Flanders (Edward IV), Helena Lymbery (Hume), Lucy Mangan (Joan of Arc), Roger Morlidge (Gloucester), Kwami Odoom (Somerset/Richard), Bridgitta Roy (Warwick) and Max Runham (Henry VI). Continue reading “Casting news aplenty!”

Review: Oppenheimer, Swan

“We could make a star on the surface of the Earth”

Michael Billington notes in his Guardian review that John Heffernan’s work in the title role in Tom Morton-Smith’s Oppenheimer will “elevate [him] to star-status” but to those of us in the know, he’s long been held in such lofty acclaim. From supporting roles in a wide range of interesting productions to taking the lead in Richard II and Edward II, he has steadily revealed himself as an actor of consummate skill and strength and I make no bones in asserting that he is truly the Dame Judi Dench of his generation.

And as ‘Oppie’, the leader of the Manhattan Project and as such the father of the atomic bomb, he really does live up to the billing. There’s such an easy personability about him that is a perfect introduction to a man who is a brilliant physicist, irresistible to women and surrounded by friends as they rail against 1930s fascism in Spain. But where the dexterity comes is in showing us how the weight of such increasingly terrible responsibility haunted and conflicted him in different ways – professionally, personally, philosophically, psychologically. Continue reading “Review: Oppenheimer, Swan”

Review: The Taming of the Shrew, Propeller at Hampstead

“It will make the man mad, to make a woman of him”

It is nigh on impossible to put on a production of The Taming of the Shrew these days without first considering how to solve the issues that lie at the heart of this problematic play. Last year saw the Globe play it for laughs hugely successfully and it also saw the RSC up the erotic ante with less effective results, we now get the all-male Propeller interpretation in London which takes a yet different route into one of Shakespeare’s more difficult works. In direct contrast with their take on Twelfth Night, there is a marked lack of sexual attraction in this world, instead this is firmly a tale about power and control and just how brutal the male exercising thereof can get.

Ed Hall’s production plays up the framing device of Christopher Sly’s drunken shenanigans and firmly locates the main body of the story, of Petruchio’s brutish diminishment of the spirited Kate, in the play-within-a-play. This is achieved mainly by the rather nifty device of having Sly himself co-opted into being part of the play put on for his benefit – Vince Leigh’s sizzled tinker morphing into a viciously virile Petruchio who then becomes the calculatingly hard focal point, failing to realise just what is being revealed of his true self in the telling of this tale.  Continue reading “Review: The Taming of the Shrew, Propeller at Hampstead”

Re-review: Twelfth Night, Propeller at Hampstead Theatre

“Ay marry, what is he?”

It’s over six months since Propeller started their most recent tour and so a similar amount of time since I saw Twelfth Night back in Guildford, a production I enjoyed immensely and ranked as my 13th favourite of the year. And as is now their wont, their tour makes a late stop at Edward Hall’s London abode at the Hampstead Theatre for an extended stay where both their productions (The Taming of the Shrew is the other this time round) will play in rep. Getting to revisit a show like this is something of a luxury and a rare opportunity at that, I ummed and aahed briefly about booking again but the lure of the front row was too strong for me to resist. 

And I am glad I went back for seconds, for this really is my kind of Shakespearean comedy. Not so much in the all-male playing of it but rather in the restraint with which it goes for the laughs, concentrating instead on a tone of sustained melancholy. In emphasising the bittersweet notes as it does – from the start, it is clear Liam O’Brien’s Feste prefers a more mournful ballad – the play is given, for me at least, a greater sense of depth. A real feeling of loneliness, pain and bitterness to so many of these characters creates an ideal counterweight to the broad humour once it comes and makes us feel their ups and downs so much more. Continue reading “Re-review: Twelfth Night, Propeller at Hampstead Theatre”

Review: Twelfth Night, Propeller at Yvonne Arnaud

“What kind of woman is’t?”

In what is now a bit of a tradition (although I was abandoned by my usual partner in crime), late November sees me travel to the Yvonne Arnaud theatre in Guildford, as it has become one of the first places that Propeller visit as they commence their lengthy tours around the UK and beyond. Indeed my first ever Propeller experience was here with the frankly outstanding Richard III, which with The Comedy of Errors made for an incredible introduction to this all-male company. The most recent double bill of Henry V and The Winter’s Tale didn’t quite live up to that billing for me, despite still being some of the most imaginatively reinterpreted Shakespeare I saw all year, and so there was no doubt I would continue to make the pilgrimage to Surrey. 

This time round, they are revisiting their 2006/7 productions of The Taming of the Shrew (which will start performances in late January) and Twelfth Night which commenced earlier in the month and which I saw at this midweek matinée. And from the lowering storm clouds that form the ever-present backdrop, it is clear that this is going to be no fluffy romp but rather a bittersweet take on Shakespeare’s rich comedy of frustrated love and sexual confusion. Sure, the production is full of the raucous innovation that Propeller bring to their reassessment of the Bard’s work and so we have here – amongst many, many other things – boxing matches, the La’s, tap dancing, nose flicking, and shirtless moving statues. Continue reading “Review: Twelfth Night, Propeller at Yvonne Arnaud”

Review: The Winter’s Tale, Propeller at the Crucible

“Many a man there is”

The second part of Propeller’s current double bill is The Winter’s Tale and much as we did last year for The Comedy of Errors, Boycotting Trends and I (with bonus @3rdspearcarrier) trekked up to Sheffield to catch it early in the substantial tour that follows. It was a little sad but true that Henry V failed to live up to my (sky-high) expectations so I’d aimed for a better job of managing them this time round for this ‘problem play’.

Sicilia is all moon-lit stark, metallic edges, the dark candle-lit atmosphere matching the troubled mind of Leontes, whose tortured jealousy sends him into a frenzy that challenges a lifelong friendship, the will of the gods and the lives of his children and his dear wife Hermione. Robert Hands give his Leontes an anger that subtly builds rather than one that defines his character and thus we feel for him even in his most fevered moments and always see the husband and father that is being lost in the red mist of jealousy – this in turn makes it (slightly) more believable that Hermione might forgive him. Continue reading “Review: The Winter’s Tale, Propeller at the Crucible”

Review: Henry V, Propeller at Yvonne Arnaud

“May I with right and conscience make this claim”

After the phenomenal success of their pairing of Richard III and The Comedy of Errors which toured considerably this year, all-male Shakespeare company Propeller are riding on something of a high. The company has evolved once again with some departures, some new faces and several stalwarts remaining in situ to take on Henry V (which will be accompanied by The Winter’s Tale from next year) which will tour the UK and the world once again, even heading over to Australia and New Zealand in March.

A history play that has war at the very heart of it, Henry V perhaps lends itself more easily than most to updating, the enduring nature of conflict meaning that resonance is sadly never too far away. Propeller, with Michael Pavelka’s design, have adopted a modern feel – costumes point towards early-twentieth century – but one that generally feels more timeless rather than particularly anchored to any specific period with scaffolding units and crates forming a flexible set. The company bring their customary level of reinvigoration to the play, breathing a new physical life into the work and letting their imagination take it to new places. Continue reading “Review: Henry V, Propeller at Yvonne Arnaud”

Review: All’s Well That Ends Well, National

All’s Well That Ends Well is one of Shakespeare’s so-called ‘problem plays’, not easily classified as a comedy or a tragedy, but this production a part of the Travelex season at the National Theatre, posed no problems for me. This is a confidently-acted, stunningly-mounted, assured production which really confirms to me that the NT have hit the ground running with this season of plays.

The programme describes the play as ‘Shakespeare Noir’ which is quite an apt description for it. The comedy, and there is lots of it, is often underscored by the darker turns of the plot, and there is little frivolity of the ‘hey nonny no’ type, which can sometimes seem quite glib. The play opens with a girl of little consequence save the knowledge passed down from her physician father, arriving at the court of the King of France and healing him of his ailment. Her reward is to marry the man of her choice, but her chosen nobleman, Bertram, objects to such a lowly match and sets Helena a seemingly impossible challenge to win his heart and subsequently heads off to war in Italy, but Helena is hot on his heels in order to try and fulfil the deal. Continue reading “Review: All’s Well That Ends Well, National”