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.
Increasingly, that’s where the best modern Shakespearean productions are coming from, the ones that emphasise contemporary resonances whist understanding its classic underpinnings. And Hastie delivers in spades – supernumeraries from Sheffield People’s Theatre heckle loudly from the audience and are as easily incited to mob rule by Elliot Cowan’s excellent Mark Antony as the likes of Katie Hopkins wishes she had the insidious power to do.
Zoe Waites’ Cassius tips the gender politics of Jonathan Hyde’s thoroughly old-school Caesar into stark relief, and Samuel West’s Brutus is the embodiment of liberal intellectualism that seems so ill-equipped to deal with a fast-changing world. Their climactic debate is thoroughly scintillating, dimly but evocatively lit by Johanna Town (credit too to Emma Laxton’s sound work and Richard Taylor’s brooding score), a properly titanic struggle. Regime change rarely seemed so exciting.
Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes (with interval)
Photos: Johan Persson
Booking until 10th June
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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.

News (and photos): National Theatre gala (plus actors in suits!)

The National Theatre last night hosted its biennial fundraising gala, Up Next, raising over a million pounds to support access to the arts for children and young people across the country. I think they forgot to invite me though… 😜

 

Performances commissioned especially for the event included a new piece by Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, alongside performances by Sir Lenny Henry, Anne-Marie Duff and hundreds of talented young people from across London.

Continue reading “News (and photos): National Theatre gala (plus actors in suits!)”

Leading Man of the Year 2016

It’s that time of year again when I am publicly shallow in my appreciation of the men that grace our stages and given the hit counts I get on these annual posts, you’re all just as thirsty as me!

The lists from 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010 and 2009 are there for your perusal too but let’s get on with 2016’s show!

Elliot Cowan

This list wouldn’t be this list without Elliot Cowan on it, it was almost named after him at one point!. And if there’s something a bit wrong about including so good a play as Les Blancs on as tawdry a post as this, there’s no doubting how his ongoing transition into a silver fox is irresistible.

(c) Faye Thomas

Phil Dunster

Pink Mist was another of those plays where I had to try hard not to be distracted by the handsomeness of its cast, but fortunately a Gay Times photoshoot allowed us all to return, guilt-free, after the fact.

(c) Gay Times

John Light

Apparently on a one-man mission to make Shakespeare sexy, this time saw The Winter’s Tale hotting up, especially good fun as I’d ponied up for seats that were practically on the stage for this one.

Andrew Schneider

Any man that can do a Robyn dance routine (YOUARENOWHERE) is a winner in my book, and when you look like this guy, you can be sure I won’t be dancing on my own.

(c) Maria Baranova

Denholm Spurr

Not necessarily the best photo but a worthy entrant for his commitment to new gay writing as much as his commitment to looking mighty fine in it.

Kit Harington

It’s a bit of a shame that Harington did a whole lot of press about how he didn’t like being objectifed for his body just before Jamie Lloyd went and exploited it shamelessly in Doctor Faustus. Not many other people were complaining though…

(c) Marc Brenner

Ramin Karimloo

I loved the fact that within minutes of Murder Ballad starting, director Sam Yates had Karimloo shirtless, recognising and rewarding its target audience

Ned Derrington (plus bonus Dominic Tighe)

Given that one of Emma Rice’s first innovations at the Globe was to get Derrington’s Lysander in his pants and flirting outrageously with a male Helenus, who knows what other treasures we have now lost with her untimely departure on the schedule later this year.

(c) Getty Images

Ben Batt

There’s probably something in the fact that I think every man I’ve ever seen play Stanley Kowalski has made it on here, so who am I to buck a trend…

(c) Manuel Harlan
(c) Manuel Harlan

Sam Crane

Rumour has it I might have gone to Sunset in the Villa Thalia in the hope of seeing Mr Crane in beachwear. I may not have been disappointed 😉

(c) Manuel Harlan

Mateo Oxley

Nuff said 😉

(c) Ellie Kurtz

Michael Xavier

Production shots for Sunset Boulevard missed out one of the more eye-opening bits of the show with Xavier in his swimming trunks but fortunately, his tracking of his fitness progress on Instagram in advance of the show

O-T Fagbenle

Utterly charming and silkily dangerous, Fagbenle’s performance in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was a feast for the eyes as well as the heart and soul.

And a final Brucie bonus, Luca Savazzi from one of the last things I saw in 2016…

(c) Jan Versweyveld

TV Review: Cilla

“The Black bird has landed”


It’s only taken me a couple of years to get round to watching Cilla, a 2014 ITV miniseries written by Jeff Pope, in which time the small matter of Cilla Black’s passing has made it a more poignant piece. My main reason for watching though, its arrival on Netflix aside, was to finally catch up with Sheridan Smith’s portrayal of the Liverpudlian light entertainment behemoth, back in the days when she was just a scouse lass called Priscilla White.
Pope’s script definitely has a touch of the rose-tinted about it but there’s no denying the amazing energy of Liverpool’s music scene in the 1960s that comes across in the first two episodes. Though she has a job as a typist – her mother proudly proclaims “the first in the family to be considered suitable for office work” – Cilla dreams of being a singer and is making quite the name for herself on the club circuit, building a following through club performances with upcoming bands such as a quartet called The Beatles.
The drama covers most of Black’s career in the 60s – from those days in the Cavern to being signed up by Brian Epstein and beginning a hugely successful UK music career. And it is hugely elevated by a stunning performance from Smith, who sings all of Cilla’s songs with pitch-perfect passion but also thoroughly embodies the thrill of being on the edge of breaking through, the despair of thinking everything has been ruined, the life-changing exuberance of becoming a star.
It’s the perfect reminder of just how good an actress Sheridan Smith is, away from recent difficulties that have sadly dominated coverage of her, and she is hugely, thoroughly, likable here. She’s given great support by Aneurin Barnard as the ever-faithful Bobby, the songwriter, road manager and would-be love interest by her side, and Ed Stoppard as Epstein, the insightful manager guiding her career to ever-higher heights even as the closeted dalliances of his private life take a serious toll. A most enjoyable watch.

Review: Les Blancs, National

“Do you think the rape of a continent dissolves in cigarette smoke?”

To think that just a couple of weeks ago, I hadn’t ever seen a play by Lorraine Hansberry and now I’ve seen two – the extraordinary A Raisin in the Sun which has now completed its UK tour and this new production of Les Blancs at the National. The sad reality is that there isn’t much more to see now, pancreatic cancer taking her life at just 34, but what a startling legacy this writer left of theatre that delves uncompromisingly into issues of race and identity, that remains as pertinent today as it did the mid-twentieth century when she was writing.

Hansberry didn’t get to complete Les Blancs before her death and so this final text was adapted by her sometime husband and collaborator Robert Nemiroff and it is directed here by Yaël Farber, making her National Theatre debut after her highly acclaimed 2014 The Crucible for the Old Vic. And people who saw that production will instantly recognise Farber’s modus operandi as this show opens in a highly atmospheric manner – a group of matriarchs, led by musical director Joyce Moholoagae, chanting and singing in Xhosa to leave us in no doubt what continent we’re on.


But though it is Africa, Hansberry set her play in a fictional country, a nation bristling under a colonial rule that is fast fading but riven by internal crises too, as the uncertainty of a post-colonial future looms large. At three hours, it lingers long but remains taut as a drumskin throughout with its searching questioning about what happens in revolution, when even a single family can find itself on opposing sides and written with such clear-sighted frankness as it is here, the play unleashes a deep and complicated sadness at such a troubled and yet still unresolved part of our collective history.

Tshembe Matoseh (Danny Sapani) has returned to the village of his birth to bury his father but the reunion with his two brothers serves to show how far apart their lives have drifted. Intellectual Tshembe has travelled the world and settled in England with a wife and child, Abioseh (Gary Beadle) stayed put and influenced by the settler-run mission in town has become a Catholic priest and Eric (Tunji Kasim) – technically their half-brother – cleaves closer to the radicalised spirit of their father. Tshembe tries to keep his powder dry but as a volatile situation is further inflamed into civil war, loyalties have to be declared.

At the same time, US journalist Charlie Morris (Elliot Cowan) is looking into the staff of the missionary hospital and so we see different sides to the story of occupation, of the ostensible benevolence and officious brutality that goes hand in hand. In one of the show’s most aching moments, Siân Phillips’ Madame Nielsen recounts her journey to this land as a young newlywed full of hopes and dreams, that naïveté slowly shattered by the harsh realities of imperial life as revealed by Morris’ investigations, a mature performance of graceful integrity from Cowan.

But it is with the Matoseh brothers where the discomforting drama lies, Sapani giving an utterly captivating turn as the conflicted Tshembe, unable to extricate himself emotionally from that which he has removed himself physically, and nailing the troubled intensity of a man coming eventually to the boil. Beadle and Kasim support him well and Sheila Atim, as the silent Woman, displays a formidable physical presence as the spirit drawing him back to a homeland that cannot, will not, let go.

Farber lets this all play out in a brooding world of real volatility, shadowy figures forever encroaching on the edge of Soutra Gilmour’s sparse but pointed design. Adam Cork’s soundscape menaces throughout whether in the crack of a rifle or the pounding of drums from afar and his music, which is equally threaded through the show, is a powerful, additional texture of real difference. It’s taken me a shamefully long time to discover Lorraine Hansberry’s work, don’t make the same mistake while this extraordinary production of Les Blancs is on. 

Running time: 3 hours (with interval)
Booking until 2nd June

DVD Review: Da Vinci’s Demons Series 3

“People of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them, they went out and happened to things”
I came to Da Vinci’s Demons late but I really enjoyed working my way through Series 1 and Series 2 of this historical fantasy in order to get up to speed for the arrival of the third series. This turned out to be a bit of a bittersweet exercise as the show was then cancelled and the decision made to release the final series in its entirety online. I reviewed the first two episodes here but it has taken me a while to get to watching the rest though sadly, it wasn’t quite the swansong I’d hoped for.
Now thoroughly uprooted from Florence, the multitudinous locations of the many-stranded narrative leave Da Vinci’s Demons flailing aimlessly a little too often, with a sense of confusion about where and when (and indeed why) things are happening and not enough of a grand design emerging, drawing the pieces together with increasing clarity. The most frustrating part of this is the prominence of the programme’s internal mythology, pitching the Sons of Mithras (now bad) against the Labyrinth (possibly good, I think).

It’s an additional level of conspiracy theory that just isn’t needed in a period of history that is so rich for pickings – the de’ Medicis themselves, fierce rivalries of the Italian city states, the advancing Ottoman hordes… Plus there’s a considerable cast of characters who just aren’t given enough to do, especially as new ones keep arriving. Perhaps the knowledge that the show was ending would have reshaped the writing a little but that’s no excuse really.
So key characters are killed off (big mistake), Lorenzo is M.I.A. for half a season once again as he’s captured, the rise of Vanessa and Nico in his stead – an unexpected but fascinating turn of events – is given short shrift. And the complexity of Leonardo’s family connections is ramped up but to no satisfying degree, with a series of frustrating decisions denying us some dramatic scenes. Only with the return of some of old-school (Series 1) inventing do the sparks really ignite, leading up to the finale. 

And it’s a shame that the fluidity of Da Vinci’s sexuality, acknowledged at least for one episode back in Series 1, has fallen entirely by the wayside, the homoerotism of the last series notwithstanding. This time round, there’s not even that but the directors do at least give us a couple of instances to admire the results of Renaissance training programmes with both Riley and Ritson flaunting their abs for all to see, Riley even mudwrestling shirtless at one point, and Elliot Cowan getting his buttocks out for us all to enjoy.
It has not been without highlights – Riley has never been less than hugely watchable as Da Vinci himself with all his vicissitudes and vanity, though the belated recognition of his culpability in inventing all manner of war machines was particularly well done this time round. Blake Ritson’s Riario has taken the more interesting character turns given to him and run like the wind, the return of Paul Rhys’ magnificently camp Vlad is a masterstroke and though the female characters have largely been under-served (I don’t think they’ve known what to do with Lucrezia since the end of Series 1), it was fun to see Eleanor Matsuura shine as she rose from madam to statesman.
But I think the loss of creator David Goyer from the helm and the introduction of new showrunner John Shiban did Da Vinci’s Demons no favours for this final season. Whilst it is impressive for a cable show to make it to three seasons, an innate lack of clarity about what the show’s strengths were is apparent throughout, making this sadly the weakest of the three. 

TV Review: Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands Episode 1

“Some people say that heroes are born and some that they’re made” 


As Da Vinci’s Demons draws to a close and Game of Thrones fans have to wait until the end of April for Season 6 to start, ITV step into the big-budget historical fantasy genre with their 12-part serialisation of Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands. Created by James Dormer, Tim Haines and Katie Newman, Beowulf is based on the epic Old English poem set in the Dark Ages in Northumbria but spins its own fantasy world out of the source material, something that looks promising on the evidence of this first episode. 

With any new series, there’s a certain amount of setting up to be done in the first episode and Dormer’s writing does well to weave plenty of exposition into the story without weighing it down too much. After seeing his father killed by a fearsome beast which he then slaughters, the young Beowulf is adopted by the local thane Hrothgar. This is shown in a brief prologue as as the show starts proper, we’ve skipped a couple of decades ahead where Beowulf, long estranged from his family, returns to the frontier town of Herot to mourn Hrothgar’s passing. 
There he finds the new thane, Hrothgar’s wife Rheda stamping her authority on an unruly populace, not least her disgruntled son and presumed heir Slean, and a motley crew of friends, old and new, who are slowly won over as he helps the suspicious township to deal with a murder and kidnapping by an unknown enemy. Friend of the blog Kieran Bew is ideally cast as Beowulf, not least as he’s a local lad from Hartlepool and a keen fencer, his grizzled tough exterior handy indeed in these hostile environments but a real tenderness evident too as he mourns his father-figure. I’ve long been a fan of his stage work and I’ve no doubt he’s got the chops to carry the weight of this leading role with stylish élan.
There’s a corking supporting cast around him too. William Hurt plays Hrothgar, importantly seen in flashbacks as his complex family relations will have repercussions for episodes to come; Joanne Whalley’s Rheda adds a fascinating gender dimension which will be interesting to see play out; Ed Speleers glowers marvellously as Slean, a natural foe for Beowulf as his pseudo-brother; Ellora Torchia as village blacksmith Vishka and Lolita Chakrabarti as her mother Lila both promise much as characters; and I loved Gísli Örn Garðarsson as Beowulf’s wry sidekick Breca, offering a sardonic vein of comic relief. And I’ve not even mentioned Elliot Cowan’s cameo as a neighbouring thane. 
Reflecting the outlay, the show looks a million dollars (well, a reputed £17 million), the location work in the North-East of England looks stunning (County Durham and Northumberland feature heavily), giving a nice balance of both Dark Ages spirit and a genuinely otherworldly feel to the mythical Shieldlands. The CGI work for the mudborn monsters is seamlessly done, the production design is gorgeous, my only real bugbear comes with the cinematic bombast of the score which screams ‘EPIC’ a little too insistently for my liking. Still, I’m looking forward to where Beowulf takes us over the next 11 weeks and whether the ambitions behind it (the cast are reportedly on five year contracts) turn out to be fulfilled. 

TV Review: Da Vinci’s Demons Series 3, episodes 1 + 2

“This chemistry sounds much too sophisticated for a horde of heathens”

In this world of Netflix and Amazon dramas, the rules of getting your televisual content out there have changed for everyone and following suit, the entirety of the third series of Starz’ Da Vinci’s Demons has been released for people to go for a binge-watch or bite-site chunks as they see fit. I haven’t got a huge amount of time this week so I thought I’d sample the opening two episodes of this final (for now) season of this highly enjoyable historical fantasy romp, not least to get the cliff-hanger ending of Series 2 out of the way.

And perhaps acknowledging the forthcoming ending (although the series was filmed before the cancellation was announced), the tone of the show has darkened, increasingly bloody and brutal as ritual and warcraft take a more vicious turn with the stakes rising for pretty much every concerned. The Turks’ sacking of Naples gives us the best battle the show has done with fearsome consequences for several characters, Riario’s dealings with The Labyrinth become ever more sinister and even Gregg Chillin’s Zoroaster gets a decent plot for once.

With John Shiban taking over as showrunner from series creator David Goyer, the writing’s move towards greater character focus carries on apace. The only thing Tom Riley’s ever-strong Leonardo invents is the assault course from The Krypton Factor and conversely, what he actually has to deal with is somebody else using his battlefield innovations against him and his allies in some chillingly realised scenes which really test his emotional fortitude, the full impact of which it will be interesting to trace across the whole series.

Elsewhere, the Florence strand looks set to be most intriguing with the unexpected rise of Vanessa and Nico to the ruling court (good work from both Hera Hilmar and Eros Vlahos), I was glad to see Ray Fearon’s mysterious Carlo de’ Medici return as there’s much to explore with him, and Lara Pulver’s Clarice is interestingly poised in her own journey – a beautifully written scene with Laura Haddock’s Lucrezia had an ominous quality which makes fear a little for both their safety – as the end approaches, those titular demons look to be getting more dangerous.

DVD Review: Da Vinci’s Demons Series 2

“This could be the gateway to extraordinary things”

The second series of Da Vinci’s Demons continues the historical fantasy in all its raucous, vaguely homo-erotic glory and feels like a stronger season for it. Having set up the busy world of Medici-ruled Florence and all its enemies, alongside Leonardo’s ongoing mystical quest at the behest of the Sons of Mithras, the show breathes a little here and has no compunction in scattering its main players on separate storylines, whilst folding in new ones to keep the story-telling ever fresh.

Most notably, Tom Riley’s captivating Leo hops on a ship with his pals and a guy called Amerigo Vespucci (Lee Boardman eventually getting to milk an excellent gag) to chase the Book of Leaves all the way to Peru and the depths of Machu Picchu. These South American scenes are just fantastic, magnificent to look at as our heroes take on the Incan Empire in all its gruesome feathered glory to uncover the mystery around Leo’s mother and the hidden power contained with the book.

And this time round, with the drama heightened and all the globe-trotting, the level of invention gets even higher as Da Vinci comes up with all sorts of notions to get through these scrapes – blood transfusions, PA systems, significant astrological deductions, submarines, parachutes… But pleasingly there’s real character development too, both for Leo who discovers he’s not actually invincible and for others, Blake Ritson’s Riario deepens into real pathos (as well as being incredibly alluring in even the most trying of circumstances) and Eros Vlahos’ Nico is also allowed room to grow out of sidekick capers into something more sophisticated, befitting his (unspoken) surname (which is Machiavelli btw).

Elliott Cowan’s Lorenzo de’ Medici also benefits from being allowed out of Florence, his journey to the King of Naples’ court setting him up against the gothic horror of the mad king (Matthew Marsh) and his hyper-violent son Alfonso (the thrillingly ambidextrous and pictured Kieran Bew whose shirtless swordplay I could watch all day long…) as he tries to persuades Naples to side with Florence against the vindictive Pope. Aided by first love Ippolita Maria Sforza (a very good Jeany Spark), these scenes also resonate strongly with their fine line between negotiation and torture.

By comparison, Lara Pulver’s Clarice gets a rougher deal left in Florence, the show not returning to her stories quite so often and so they don’t develop as much as they could as she attempts to defend the Medici fortune against grasping hands. Ray Fearon’s newly arrived Carlo de’ Medici is an intriguing addition here though but too much of Clarice’s story happens off-screen for my liking. And Laura Haddock’s Lucrezia draws the shortest straw, the big reveal of her origins ending up isolating her and only latterly involving the character in the long set-up for the finale and (presumably) event of the third series.

So a second series that builds on and improves on the first, developing the intriguing mythology of the show but never forgetting to be darn entertaining whilst doing so. And that’s just it, Da Vinci’s Demons may not be earth-changing stuff but it is enjoyable in the extreme and whilst it’s a shame that the forthcoming third series will be its last, there’s also something salutary in something finite, the ability to wrap things up as they want rather than the indignity of a cancellation that leaves so much in the air.