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: King Lear, Holy Trinity Church, Guildford

“Hooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooowl”

In something of a coup, Guildford Shakespeare Company’s leading man for their production of King Lear is none other than Brian Blessed. And with his daughter Rosalind playing Goneril too. The play’s opening this week was a little overshadowed by the actor’s collapse during the final preview performance, but with the redoubtable resilience we have come to expect from this totemic figure (and perhaps unfairly so, he is 78 after all), he continued with the show after a 20 minute break. So three days later, it was with a little trepidation that we took our seats in the Holy Trinity Church in Guildford (cushion recommended!).

But we needn’t have worried, Brian Blessed giving his King Lear was exactly how you’d imagine Brian Blessed giving his King Lear would be. For better and for worse. There’s a real thrill in seeing him throw himself so fully into the cantankerous cruelty and wild abandon that characterises Lear’s breakdown – every howl, headshake and handwring is vastly exaggerated and is so unmistakeably him. But this comes at the loss of much subtlety, if not wailing he’s whispering with inbetween, which ultimately becomes a little exhausting whilst remaining trashily enjoyable. I mean look at the poster, what you want is Brian Blessed doing exactly what Brian Blessed does. Continue reading “Review: King Lear, Holy Trinity Church, Guildford”

Review: Fortune’s Fool, Old Vic

“Oh, my dears…there’s more fun to be had here than at the theatre”

A sense of duty rather than excitement saw me nip into the Old Vic for Fortune’s Fool and to be frank, I wish I hadn’t bothered. Not a play with which I was familiar, I was shocked at how violently it rubbed me up the wrong way, an uneasy blend of Russian country house-driven ennui and farcical shenanigans which sadly felt like an utterly inessential piece of theatre. In retrospect, I can see how it might have appealed as a piece of safe programming but as with much this year at the Old Vic, it is hard to feel artistically enthused there and though this was an early performance in the run and received enthusiastically at the end, I’ve never seen so many newly empty seats post-interval. 


But back to the play. Written in 1848 by Turgenev, Lucy Bailey’s production uses Mike Poulton’s adaptation which was fashioned for Broadway back in 2002 (where it made its debut, though it has been seen in the UK before then). Kuzokvin is a miserable Russian aristocrat who has relied on the kindness of a (long dead) friend for room and board whilst his own property is tied up in legalities. When the newly married heirs to the estate announce they are to arrive, he’s sent into a bit of a tizzy, a situation which is made immeasurably worse when neighbour and fellow aristocrat Tropatchov turns up to join them for a boozy lunch. 


For Tropatchov is also miserable and his ennui manifests itself in an embittered viciousness to his repartee and the first half is taken up with the increasingly drunken antics of these aristocrats and their ever-watchful servants as Richard McCabe’s Tropatchov winds up Iain Glen’s Kuzovkin to excruciating levels of humiliations, but unleashing a shocking revelation which it then takes the second act to resolve. It is hardly ground-breaking stuff but crucially it doesn’t offer up anything much of interest, nothing about it held my attention sufficiently or manage to do much more than try my patience.


McCabe is decent enough but it is a one-note character, something exacerbated by the overused tic he gives his toff of frequently flicking his foppish fringe. Glen has the harder task of marrying tragi- with comedy and doesn’t really pull it off at the moment, the drunkenness a horribly stagy sequence and thoroughly unbelievable. The only pleasure for me came from seeing Alexander Vlahos doing well as the returning heir, nice to see him graduating to larger roles since a great turn in Macbeth earlier this year. So not my cup of tea at all but more than that, it also feels an unsatisfactory (and far-too-female-light) choice of play. 

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes (with interval)

Booking until 22nd February

Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Actors Church Covent Garden

“I shall do thee mischief in the wood…
‘Ay, in the town, in the temple…’”

Last July’s Romeo and Juliet at the Actors Church in Covent Garden was a real unexpected surprise in a summer that was full of productions of that play, site-specific theatre that genuinely worked with the idiosyncrasies of the venue and able to exploit them to their full advantage. This year Iris Theatre are putting on A Midsummer Night’s Dream as their main production for the summer, an early showing of which I caught this week, to see whether the magic could be recaptured with this, my most favourite of Shakespeare’s plays.

The venue is St Pauls Church, right in the middle of Covent Garden with its own secluded courtyard filled with trees and shrubbery, which lends itself well to the evocation of the Forest of Arden: Dan Winder’s fluid production places a strong connection with nature front and centre so that the fairies are closer to woodland sprites than the ballet-dressed moppets of old, fitting in perfectly to the grassy knolls, wildflower-strewn groves and secluded bowers, the steps of the church creating a more stately locations where needed. The audience follows the action around the grounds, though there’s only perhaps 2 moves in each half and there’s sufficient room for everyone at each place, sitting or standing – something which is not always the case in promenade productions. Continue reading “Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Actors Church Covent Garden”