Review: Julius Caesar, Crucible

“Why, saw you anything more wonderful?”

 Robert Hastie’s opening salvo as the new Artistic Director of Sheffield Theatres might not immediately quicken the pulse as we’ve hardly been lacking for productions of Julius Caesar. But it is soon apparent that this is a canny director at work, making his mark on the Crucible Theatre and how its space is used, on our notions of how Shakespeare is traditionally interpreted, establishing what looks like exciting times ahead for Sheffield.

With designer Ben Stones, Hastie opens out the stage into a space of transformative and unpredictable power – the modern political arena is evoked with its UN-style chambers and mod-cons but it is just as much the powder-keg of changeable public opinion. And the way in which the two intersect, feed into each other, thus feels as informed by hatemongering Sun or Daily Mail headline-grabbing antics as it does by the words of a sixteenth century writer. Continue reading “Review: Julius Caesar, Crucible”

Full casting for Robert Hastie’s Julius Caesar

 
Full casting has been announced for Robert Hastie’s upcoming production of Julius Caesar at Sheffield Crucible, his first at the helm, and it looks like an absolute doozie. Not only has he brought back former artistic director Samuel West and tempted definitive-fave-of-this-blog Elliot Cowan back to the stage, Hastie is continuing his commitment to gender parity by recruiting a company of eight men and eight women and sharing out the roles how he damn well wants. 

So the show features Samuel West in the role of Brutus, alongside Jonathan Hyde as Julius Caesar. Zoe Waites will play Cassius, Elliot Cowan will play Mark Antony and Chipo Chung will star as Portia/Octavius. The cast is completed by Lisa Caruccio Came (Calpurnia), Pandora Colin (Casca), Robert Goodale (Lepidus), Alison Halstead (Metellus), Mark Holgate (Cinna), Arthur Hughes (Lucius), Robinah Kironde (Popilus, Clitus), Lily Nichol (Soothsayer), Royce Pierreson (Ligarius, Dardanius), Abigail Thaw (Trebonius) and Paul Tinto (Artemidorus, Pindarus).

In case you’ve forgotten, Hastie directed Michelle Terry in the title role in last year’s Henry V at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, and Sheffield is clearly very lucky to have him leading one of the country’s leading theatrical institutions. Julius Caesar runs at Sheffield Crucible from 23 May to 10 June, with previews from 17 May, and I’ll definitely be making my way northwards for this.

 

 

 

Countdown to new Who: Doctor Who Series 4

“Donna Noble has left the library. Donna Noble has been saved”

And here we are, my favourite series of Doctor Who. So much huge wonderfulness and even its less good moments are still more than halfway decent. Key to the series’ success is Catherine Tate’s Donna Noble – gobby and one-dimensional in her introductory episode the Christmas special The Runaway Bride, her character journey throughout this season is magisterially constructed, a true awakening of self (with thankfully no romantic inclinations towards our Time Lord) and one given unbearable poignancy due to its frustratingly tragic end.

It’s also one of the best constructed series in terms of its over-arching season arc, its warnings and clues layered meaningfully into several stories and building into a momentous and properly climactic finale, which lands just about the right level of grandiosity. There’s also the first companion-lite episode (the superbly creepy Midnight) to go with the Doctor-lite one (the achingly beautiful dystopian Turn Left); a typically brilliant Moffat double-header in  Silence in the Library and Forest of the Dead with gorgeous work from Alex Kingston as the soon-to-be-hugely-significant River Song; and if the return of Rose undoes some of the emotional impact of the Series 2 finale, Billie Piper’s work is spikily powerful. These are episodes I can, and have, watched over and over again.

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Countdown to new Who: Doctor Who Series 3

“You 
Are 
Not 
Alone”

 
There’s something perhaps a bit perverse in some of the strongest episodes of new Who emerging from the series which (arguably) had the weakest companion. Freema Agyeman was ill-served by writing that couldn’t let her be a companion in her own right, as opposed to the-one-in-Rose’s-shadow, and consequently never felt entirely comfortable in the TARDIS.
 
Series 3 has real highs and certain lows – the introduction of Doctor-lite episodes (to ease the production schedules) produced the inventive wonder that was Blink (and further proved Steven Moffat’s genius), the unashamed grab for the heartstrings was perfectly realised in the Human Nature / The Family of Blood double-header, and the re-introduction of one of the Doctor’s most enduring foes was well-judged. That said, we also had the inevitable return of the Daleks who already feel like they’re in danger of over-exposure.

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TV Review: Fortitude Series 1

“It’s not a new hotel we need, it’s a bigger morgue”

The publicity for Season 2 of Fortitude, just starting now on Sky Atlantic, reminded me that I had the first series still lying around unwatched and that now would be as good a time as any to get stuck in. Created and written by Simon Donald, it manages the not-inconsiderable feat of being an effective cross-genre show, so much so that it flicks from one to another from scene to scene. It begins life as a murder mystery set in the isolated town of Fortitude in Arctic Norway, the quality of its cast meaning that it can afford to knock off Christopher Eccleston’s scientist within the first couple of episodes.

As it is a community of about 700 in extreme conditions, it also plays out as a small town comedy of the blackest kind, as the quote up top demonstrates, bringing in soap opera-ish twists which also darken as well, pretty much into horror show territory. But where Fortitude is most unexpected is in its ventures into sci-fi, as the strange happenings in the township begin to defy any kind of rational explanation. It’s a disconcerting move but once the paradigm is established, I kinda liked the randomness it brought to the show, especially since I had no idea that that was where we were heading. Continue reading “TV Review: Fortitude Series 1”

Review: Boys Will Be Boys, Bush Hall

“How do you enter a man’s world when you’ve got a vagina?”

 
The Bush Theatre may have closed its door as it undergoes a year-long renovation project to improve its accessibility and sustainability but in the meantime, it is stretching out its branches locally. And first up is Melissa Bubnic’s Boys Will Be Boys, playing a few minutes further down the Uxbridge Road at Bush Hall, an atmospheric Edwardian dance hall which has served time as a WWII soup kitchen and a bingo hall before transforming into an established music and cabaret venue.

Such an illustrious history seems ideal for this Headlong co-production, which blends in its own elements of cabaret and choreography alongside brilliant pianist Jennifer Whyte’s musical accompaniment. Which makes for a fascinating backdrop for Bubnic’s play about women in the City in which all the roles are played by women. So there’s women playing women, women playing men, and women playing women playing men at their own game. Continue reading “Review: Boys Will Be Boys, Bush Hall”

TV Review: From Darkness, BBC1

“Fat, embittered, heavy-drinking, middle-aged male detective. Do you know how much of a cliché that is”

Part of Anne-Marie Duff’s triple-fronted return to prominence (cf Suffragette and Husbands and Sons), BBC1 drama From Darkness sees her take the lead in the psychological crime drama from Katie Baxendale. Running away from unhappiness, former police constable Claire Church has made a new life for herself on a remote Scottish island with the ruggedly handsome Norrie and his daughter but the revival of a decades-old case inexorably draws her back to the darkness to longs to flee.

Trying to skewer traditional notions of female victimhood in crime dramas, Baxendale curiously opts for a storyline based on the serial killings of prostitutes and never really manages to put enough clear water between From Darkness and others in the genre. And tied up as it is with trying to explore the repercussions of letting fear overwhelm us, the show can’t quite overcome its desire to slot into the fairly conventional strictures of your standard police procedural with all its daft contrivances.

So despite being retired from the force, Duff’s pill-popping Church is soon rattling around as if she owns the place and the investigation, under the instigation of Johnny Harris’ conflicted DCI Hind with his own troubled past intimately connected to Claire’s. Luke Newberry’s green DS Boyce offers a much-needed measure of comic relief, his Oxbridge nature ill-suited to the realities of Greater Manchester policing and Caroline Lee-Johnson’s coldly efficient Superintendent is ace at just getting shit done.

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DVD Review: The Politician’s Husband

”Sometimes you have to do bad things to get into power, in order to do good things when you get there”

18 years may have passed since Paula Milne wrote The Politician’s Wife so it was something of a surprise to hear that a companion piece called The Politician’s Husband was in the works. Shown on BBC2 last year, it followed the same 3 episode miniseries format as its forefather and directed by Simon Cellan Jones, had a splashy cast in David Tennant and Emily Watson as a high-flying political couple forced to navigate tricky ground when her career starts to outshine his. But for all the expectation that may have surrounded this, it sadly didn’t feel like a worthy follow-up, satisfyingly excellent performance from Emily Watson aside. 

It’s not immediately clear why Milne decided to write this sequel of sorts. The surnames of her characters pay homage to the West Wing (Hoynes, Gardner, Babbish…) and the Machiavellian manipulations of those in power and those who would be speak of many a political thriller gone by. But it is a very British kind of politics that is being interrogated here, the expenses scandal looms large in the public disillusionment with the establishment. And though no affiliations are made with any particular political parties, it is hard not to see echoes of an imagined Balls/Cooper household here, though it is a universal truth that the power-hungry are not restricted to any one ideology. Continue reading “DVD Review: The Politician’s Husband”

Radio Review: The Oresteia – The Furies / November Dead List

“Was he driven to it by someone’s rage?”

Last up in the reinvention of Aeschylus’ Oresteia is Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s take on The Furies, bringing this tale of murder, revenge and justice to an end as the gods opt to end the vicious cycle of blood vengeance by introducing the concept of trial by jury and instituting the first ever homicide trial. 

Niamh Cusack’s perfectly modulated tone makes for an engaging narrator, Lesley Sharp has the intensity and ferocity of a thunderstorm as the vitriolic Clytemnestra, and Maureen Beattie, Polly Hemingway and Carolyn Pickles are intimidatingly malevolent as the Furies, determined to get their revenge on Will Howard’s Orestes. His defender comes in the form of Chipo Chung’s Athena, who spots the chance to change the way humans sort out their grievances yet still has to battle against the established order. It’s an interesting story but something in this production didn’t quite gel for me in the way the previous two parts of the trilogy did, possibly due to the use of a narrator, something I’m rarely keen on. Continue reading “Radio Review: The Oresteia – The Furies / November Dead List”

Review: The Fu Manchu Complex, Ovalhouse

“Well done my old flip-flop”

The Irish are a bunch of potato-munching ne’er-do-wells, the Scots are misery-laden domestic servants, the English are what-notting, closeted public schoolboys and the Chinese, well they need to get back to frying in the kitchen with their slanty eyes. From its opening vaudeville-style number, it is clear that The Fu Manchu Complex is determined to challenge notions of racial stereotypes and Daniel York’s play certainly does that with gleeful abandon, whether it manages to take the issue further and advance debate, understanding or appreciation is another matter.

Moongate Productions and director Justin Audibert use an all-Asian cast to tell this particular story – a Victorian murder mystery set in the East End of London – and they ‘white up’ to largely great effect. Paul Chan’s Sherlock-esque Nayland Smith is a charismatic lead, Andrew Koji is simply excellent as his lovelorn counterpart Dr Petrie and Moj Taylor’s grotesque housekeeper Mrs Hudson is vividly amusing as the two men set about investigating the encroaching ‘yellow peril’ and the rise of the shadowy figure of Fu Manchu who seems set on world domination. Continue reading “Review: The Fu Manchu Complex, Ovalhouse”