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: Machinal, Almeida

Sophie Treadwell’s 1928 expressionist play Machinal receives an extraordinary production from Natalie Abrahami at the Almeida Theate

Your skin oughtn’t to curl – ought it – when he just comes near you- ought it? That’s wrong, ain’t it? You don’t get over that, do you – ever, do you or do you?

Sophie Treadwell’s 1928 play Machinal may be the story of one woman battling societal pressure but Natalie Abrahami’s production for the Almeida Theatre teases out a more elemental struggle, one which stretches over the majority of the twentieth century and by extension, even further.

The story is rooted in its ordinariness. Emily Berrington’s Young Woman gets by at a job she doesn’t like, marries the first guy who shows an interest, gives birth to a child she scarcely wants – expectations check check checked. But as she learns that she wants more, can want more, the weight of societal pressure comes to bear. Continue reading “Review: Machinal, Almeida”

Review: Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare’s Globe

“Everything in extremity”

It’s something of a shame that the shadow of Emma Rice’s torrid experience as AD of the Globe looms large over her second (and final) season there. The opening production in the ‘Summer of Love’ is Daniel Kramer’s Romeo and Juliet and following Rice’s lead, it is bold and brash, full of light and sound, and the kind of ferocious energy that you can easily imagine raising the hackles once again of those influential precious few.

And as such, it’s a production that encapsulates the wide-ranging issues of such a radical approach. With its YMCA dance routines and clown make-up, dinosaur costumes and middle-aged lovers, Kramer clearly has no problem in roughing up Shakespeare. And it’s no secret that the Bard can take it, one of the smartest innovations here is to run scenes in parallel – the marriage is intercut with the deaths that doom it, action and reaction played out simultaneously. Continue reading “Review: Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare’s Globe”

Review: Treasure Island, National Theatre

“Thanks for all the pies and adventures”

The big family-oriented show at the National Theatre this winter is Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (though as it runs in rep right through to April, one hopes Spring will have sprung by then) which has been adapted for the stage by Bryony Lavery. But whilst Polly Findlay’s production has some very definite plus points, not least in an inspired design by Lizzie Clachan which utilises so much of the Olivier’s potential, it doesn’t quite have the full shiver-me-timbers factor to make it an undoubted success.

Clachan frames the theatre’s large revolving drum with a set of lowering curved ribs which suggest all kinds of mystical maritime adventures – the frame of a trusty ship, the ribcage of a giant whale, the quivering trees of a strange island. Deep in the revolve is where the real treasure is though, a warren of cabins that reflect the social hierarchy of the time and later on the maze of tunnels in which the gold can be found. Combined with the sensational starry skyscape up above, Bruno Poet’s lighting looking stunning, this is the National doing what it does so well. Continue reading “Review: Treasure Island, National Theatre”

Review: The Taming of the Shrew, Richmond Theatre

“That seeming to be most which we indeed least are”

Despite being one of Shakespeare’s more notorious plays, The Taming of the Shrew has enjoyed a long and varied performance history as productions seek to try to present this difficult tale of female subservience in a way that is acceptable to audiences. It has proved trickier though in modern times to square the misogynistic circle and so directors often find themselves upping the innovative ante to unearth interpretations which will prove satisfyingly revelatory. What this often means in practice though is that a high concept is adopted which offers insight into part of the story whilst the rest is left straining to fit in. Lucy Bailey is the latest to try and tame the Shrew here for the RSC in a production which has played a season in Stratford and is now on a short tour of the UK, currently here in Richmond.

The angle that she chooses to focus on is the Induction, the framing device that sets the story in its context – this is all just a performance being put on by a rowdy bunch of friends to delude the drunken fool Christopher Sly. Sly – a bumptious revealing turn from Nick Holder – is kept on stage throughout most of the first half and in some ways, this almost convinces us that what we are watching is but a drunken fantasy. But he is gradually phased out of the show, and so the apparent importance of being reminded that this isn’t real is stripped away and the second half played largely straight as a story that suddenly is to be taken more seriously. Continue reading “Review: The Taming of the Shrew, Richmond Theatre”