Tag Archives: Shakespeare

“As You Like It” at the Chelsea Physic Garden

The Handlebards, who tour their shows on their bikes, closed their 2017 tour with characteristic fun and bravado. The female troupe, who this year tackled As You Like It, share a sense of adventure with their male counterparts, who have been spinning out A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The performers create an informal atmosphere of chaos and adlibs that belies their skill and makes for great entertainment.

With only four in each cast – and recall that four couples get married at the end of the AYLI – the Handlebards have to handle the Bard fast and loose. In fact, that’s the strategy and their charm – leading to plenty of invention. Naturally, you’re waiting for them to shout out, “We need a wrestler”, as audience participation is a must. And when it’s this well-handled, even someone as averse to it as me can forgive it. Lots of accents make differentiating the characters jolly; from Lotte Tickner’s lisping Orlando to Jessica Hern’s prim and proper Celia. Lucy Green makes a super Rosalind – with comedy flirtation transformed into a believable teenage Ganymede. Eleanor Dillon-Reams embodies the whole approach. A natural comedian, she excels at a sense of complicity with the crowd.

What impressed most for the women’s final show was their work under difficult conditions. The Chelsea Physic Garden sounds like a great stand-in for the Forest of Arden – it’s certainly somewhere to “willingly waste” time in. But on a flightpath noisier than the Globe or Regent’s Park, it cannot be easy to perform in. Continual drizzle and a cold wind didn’t help, either. And then the fireworks started. Clearly experienced in the unexpected, the cast’s sense of fun an energy never flagged. Using any distractions, while creating their own havoc among the audience’s picnic hampers, is all part of the team’s attraction. Here’s looking forward to them getting back on their bikes in 2018.

www.handlebards.com

Photo by  Rah Petherbridge

The HandleBards 5th Year Anniversary

To celebrate five years of taking to their bikes to tour Shakespeare, this young company performed its potted version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Rotherhithe’s Brunel Museum. The spirit of fun adventure runs alongside the serious idea of environmentally sustainable theatre which has won them awards. And if you think cycling around with all your kit to put on plays is bonkers – I am sure that they would, amiably, agree with you.

The production is a bit mad, too. Having only four performers is a short cut to laughs. Cycling bells are the cue for characters changing and, you’ve guessed it, audience members are recruited. It’s all out for jolly japes and the company of friends works with a Boys’ Own spirit. Founder members Callum Brodie and Tom Dixon are especially assured, the former stealing the show as both Puck and Hermia. Calum Hughes-McIntosh and Matthew Seager also have experience with the company and it shows – both doing well with improvisation and crowd control. There’s a technical virtuosity that belies the casual feel here, and it’s an understandable flaw if the chaos is too contrived.

There’s no sign that all the cycling has tired anyone out – 12 countries, on three continents, performing to more than 50,000 people over the years – physicality is shown off at any opportunity. There’s now an all-female troupe on the road as well (I’d love to see how they might change The Chap atmosphere), and As You Like It is touring in, ahem, tandem. Comedy to the fore, and all that open air, is clearly working wonders. And good luck to them.

The HandleBards current tour runs through to September 2017

www.handlebards.com

Photo by Danford Showan

“Richard III” at the Arcola Theatre

Greg Hicks is dream casting for Shakespeare’s villainous monarch. An experienced RSC actor who commands the stage with just a shrug of his shoulder, he delivers every line impeccably, making director Mehmet Ergen’s production unmissable. This Richard carries a chain to pull himself upright but it could clearly be used as a weapon. He’s nasty and thuggish, a bar room brawler not to mess with – there’s no nonsense here about the character’s charisma. Hicks shows the world through a psychopath’s eyes rather than presenting us with a cunning politician, and using the king’s cold logic to create a chilling persuasiveness that leaves you gasping.

A mature cast join Hicks, securing further praise for the production. Peter Guinness is particularly strong as Richard’s partner in crime Buckingham. This is where the politicking comes, with a cloak-and-dagger feel aided by noirish staging, with Ergen using Anthony Lamble’s split-level set boldly. The big news is a superb Catesby, the sinister instigator of Richard’s plans, with Matthew Sim making an elegant assassin out of a usually minor role with super-spooky meticulous gestures. Strong female characters are another reason to love the play: Jane Bertish is an excellent deposed Margaret, her curses on the “bottled spider” Richard containing a sense of the tragedy that motivates her. Sara Powell gives an emotional portrayal of Queen Elizabeth that also impresses.

It’s a grown-up affair all around. Ergen is comfortable with his audience managing to work out contemporary resonances in the play if they wish, but there’s no sense of this being forced on us. Of course, the play isn’t performed in doublet and hose, but there’s no obvious spin or agenda, and this, ironically, feels original. Ergen even credits us with knowledge about the play’s propaganda content. Jamie de Courcey’s Richmond has a dash of the heroic that would have made the Tudors proud. Winning against the tyrant “raised in blood” gives the play a resolution worth suspending cynicism for. A final intelligent touch – one of many – in a strong production with consistently fine acting.

Until 10 June 2017

www.arcolatheatre.com

Photo by Alex Brenner

“Twelfth Night” at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre

Emma Rice has chosen well for her last show as director of the Globe, with a cross-dressing comedy that updates the Bard for our gender-fluid times. If you don’t think Shakespeare and Sister Sledge mix, then be warned – Rice’s energy, sensitivity and sense of irreverence are bountiful. The disco lights are on and it’s time to celebrate her reign at The Globe.

Let’s not forget that organising a good party is hard work and can call for tough decisions. There are moments of forced jollity – musical chairs proves messy – and a close reading of the text isn’t invited. But the passion in Twelfth Night is frenzied and Rice’s insight is to allow this. Nasty edges have poignancy, fate is presented as a choreographed natural phenomenon (cleverly mocked as a touch of “community theatre”) and the laughs are manic.

The twins, Sebastian and Viola, whose adventures we follow, are used to anchor the show. In these roles Anita-Joy Uwajeh and John Pfumojena impress, respectively showing a touching vulnerability and sounding particular gorgeous. The confused suitors who fall for the ship-wrecked siblings are played by Annette McLaughlin, who makes for a joyous Olivia, and Joshua Lacey, whose river-dancing-mullet-sporting-lothario Duke is the funniest I’ve seen.

Marc Antolin
Marc Antolin

The trio of pranksters in Olivia’s house continue the strong comedy. Sir Toby, Fabian and Maria, played by Tony Jayawardena, Nandi Bhebhe and the super-talented Carly Bawden (another strong voice) really go for it. The revelation is Marc Antolin as Aguecheek, transforming the role with physical comedy, ad-libs and fluorescent Y-fronts. And a lisp… sorry, but lisps are funny.

Katy Owen
Katy Owen

What the production takes seriously is drag, spoiling us with cabaret star Le Gateau Chocolat, whose Feste steers the tempestuous proceedings like a glittering, magical MC. It’s impossible to steal a show from six feet of sequins, but Katy Owen’s Malvolio holds his/her moustachioed own. Funny again (well, most jokes are better with a Welsh accent), Owen tackles bullying intelligently, tempting us to join in, then allowing the character to retain some dignity. Role-play can be dangerous.

All good parties depend on their soundtrack. Rice’s secret weapon is Ian Ross, whose compositions dominate the show: driving plots, aiding comedy, interacting with the text – check them out online. Using so many lines as lyrics enforces how productive treating the text loosely can be. It annoys purists when Shakespeare is tampered with, but Rice does so intelligently, aided by additional lyrics and lines from Carl Grose. The revisions sustain her imaginative interpretation, making the play both accessible and stimulating and her the sadly departing hostess with the mostess.

Until 5 August 2017

www.shakespearesglobe.com

Photos by Hugo Glendinning

“Romeo And Juliet” at the Union Theatre

Like Daniel Kramer’s production of the same play, currently showing at the Globe, Andy Bewley reimagines Shakespeare in a radical fashion. Here the most famous lovers in the world are men. And they and their families are rival football fans. Think Beautiful Thing with the beautiful game thrown in. Both ideas are interesting – bravo for originality – but neither works that convincingly. Put together, the creative team have too much to tackle.

As Joe M. Mackenzie’s credit for dramaturgy and adaptation indicates, the production is a version of Shakespeare. A lot of text is left out. I suspect the inspiration is the scene of Romeo and Juliet’s marriage night – enchantingly transformed using movement rather than verse. Other cuts should have been as bold. Predictably, changing the genders becomes messy. Maybe I’m missing a point but why not just change Juliet’s name to Julian?

Even more puzzling, the novel ideas don’t do much. Everyone is remarkably comfortable about the men’s sexuality and apart from some empty pint glasses, these football fans are pretty refined. Which is lovely…but avoiding the chance for extra drama seems odd. The ball skills shown off impress and Mercutio’s Balotelli t-shirt is a nice touch. But the sporting veneer adds little. Dropping it leads to a strong final scene; the action in the tomb plays like an unfolding news story, all the cast are used well, and a feeling of chaos is skilfully constructed.

Best of all, there are some fine performances here. Bewley is a careful, even-handed director with his cast. There is an air of earnestness that flattens some characters but all roles are well delivered. Gabrielle Nellis-Pain is a hard working nurse, Allegra Marland does very well as Paris and Celeste De Veazey makes the often-neglected role of Benvolio stand out. Sam Perry’s Juliet is impressively sweet; he is good at bringing some caution to the role, showing a timidity that’s seldom expressed. Abram Rooney’s Romeo has a down-to-earth delivery that is captivating, with brilliantly petulant touches. The scene of Romeo’s banishment – snotty tears and all – shows great talent. It’s the leading men that that really score.

Until 20 May 2017

www.uniontheatre.biz

“Othello” at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

This is an uncharacteristically poor production from one of London’s most gorgeous and surefooted theatres. Shakespeare’s tragedy of the Moor of Venice should be pretty foolproof – hard to mess up even if you muck about with it. But director Ellen McDougall overburdens the text with trendy touches while wilfully ignoring the poetry of the play.

From the moment the cast walk onstage to don their minimalist costumes (good work by designer Fly Davis) it’s clear McDougall wants to do something new. We have pop songs a cappella, ‘selfies’ and re-writing Cassio as a woman. All this could be exciting, and there’s clearly no shortage of ideas, but the ramifications of each addition are underdeveloped. McDougall surely has her reasons, but it is too hard to see what they are.

Which brings us to rhyme. Working with dramaturg Joel Horwood, there are stumbles due to the change of Cassio’s gender. Adding the odd joke or altering Shakespeare’s insults can be justified but add little here. Maybe tackling the text should have been bolder – presenting something new, in the spirit of last year’s Cymbeline, transformed into Imogen, outdoors at the Globe? McDougall’s cast adopt a bland approach to the verse. Presumably an attempt to make it sound natural – it actually makes it dull.

Natalie Klamar’s Desdemona suffers most from this prosaic delivery – she whines. Joanna Horton’s Cassio, a transformation that should offer such exciting potential, is humdrum. Peter Hobday’s Roderigo fails to deliver comic appeal, and he is even worse when performing as Duke Lodovico, entirely lacking charisma. Sam Spruell’s Iago comes close to making his role work – a gruff delivery denies Iago the intelligence to make him truly frightening but at least he holds the stage. The notable exceptions are Thalissa Teixeira, who develops her Emilia nicely, and the lead – Kurt Egyiawan – who thankfully, sounds wonderful. At a best guest, it’s a clumsy attempt to set up a contrast between Othello and everyone else. But it leaves far too much for Egyiawan to do and the majority of the production is just tedious.

Until 22 April 2017

www.shakespearesglobe.com

Photo by Marc Brenner

“Hamlet” at the Almeida Theatre

With Andrew Scott in the title role, this Hamlet already qualifies as one of the most exciting Shakespeare productions of the year. A consummate and intelligent performer whose lilting accent is a joy to hear, Scott uses the intimacy of the venue superbly. Combining sensitivity and ferocity he makes a strong philosopher prince. He also makes a great team with star director Robert Icke.

Andrew Scott with Amaka Okafor and Calum Finlay
Andrew Scott with Amaka Okafor and Calum Finlay

Scott’s Hamlet is tactile, all hand holding, wriggling fingers and pressing palms to his face – he even hugs his ghostly father (a brilliant performance from David Rintoul). This is a sensual Dane, aided by the casting of Amaka Okafor as Guildenstern (which adds tension for Calum Finlay’s Rosencratz, who sees Hamlet as a sexual rival). It all focuses us on Hamlet’s morbidity – his knowledge of man as “this quintessence of dust” – a cerebral point given theatrical physicality.

Icke is never short of ideas. He has so many thoughts on Hamlet it’s awe-inspiring. The overall tone is far less histrionic than many a past trip to Elsinor – even the furniture has a tasteful Scandi feel. Such restraint has a peculiar power, most notable in Claudius – a chillingly cold figure played by Angus Wright, whose controlled delivery would try the patience of many performers. It’s the first time I haven’t seen the King storm off the stage during the play-within-a-play and it’s brilliantly unsettling.

Juliet Stevenson and Angus Wright watch with Andrew Scott
Juliet Stevenson and Angus Wright watch with Andrew Scott

Other novel points include the decision to be open about Hamlet’s relationship with Ophelia. It makes more sense of her madness, giving us a modern woman to relate to that Jessica Brown Findlay exploits well. For Peter Wright’s Polonius there’s the suggestion that the respected government minister isn’t just a bore, but is suffering from dementia. And there are the videos and live recordings that are a bit of a trademark for Icke. Denmark as a surveillance state is fair enough, and rolling news broadcasts save some time, but wouldn’t it have been better for Horatio to take charge of the camera after Hamlet asks him to watch the King?

Not all of Icke’s introductions are as successful. Hamlet’s gun toting seems jarring – is it bravado on his part? While it adds shock to his confrontation with his mother (the magnificent Juliet Stevenson), pointing a gun at Claudius become confusing. The production uses a knowledge of the play heavily – a fair assumption – but loses power. An air of predestination predominates later scenes – like the audience, the characters seem to know the end. For much of the final duel, music predominates (it’s a puzzling selection throughout) while Hamlet’s “I am dead Horatio” is taken literally. Our finale – of ghosts at a party rather than corpses littering the stage – has odd tones of reconciliation. It’s all interesting, unmissable for bardophiles, and frequently brilliant, if a little cold.

Until 15 April 2017

www.almeida.co.uk

Photos by Manuel Harlan

“King Lear” at the Barbican

Gregory Doran and Antony Sher consistently turn out gold-standard work for the RSC. Their latest offering from Stratford is Shakespeare’s tragic monarch – a big challenge no matter how good your credentials – and they deliver in predictably impeccable style. Here, Lear is presented as a pagan priest. With Celtic touches from designerNiki Turner and an imperiousness from Sher that few could match, exhortations to the gods make a lot of sense. And there are plenty of well-used supernumeraries: Lear’s “insolent retinue” of Knights are out in force, while the unwashed masses that the king has neglected are there from the start. The additions, on top of traditional foundations, ensure interest and create a grand scale.

Despite Doran’s keen eye on the extras, Sher’s Lear has been allowed to overpower the production. The rest of the cast includes some fine performances, but other roles struggle to make a mark. One exception is Antony Byrne’s Kent, whose transformation into Caius is so fine that you almost believe he’s unrecognisable. Another is Paapa Essiedu’s Edmund. The parallel plot of the elderly Gloucester’s trials and his bastard son’s betrayal is delivered with intelligence and vigour. Essiedu joins the list of ones to watch.

As for Sher in the title role, while it has to be admitted that he takes few gambles, his delivery never fails. This is a physically frail old king, whose movements seem limited and difficult. Oddly, this fails to generate the sympathy you might expect and means tension slacks at some points when Lear should still seem capable of violent assault. But it’s a classy affair with key speeches marked out (it’s easy to imagine the pages turned down in a copy of the text), and Sher always sounds splendid. His charismatic presence further consolidates our monumental impression of this colossal production.

Until 23 December 2016

www.barbican.org.uk

Photo by Ellie Kurttz

“King Lear” at the Old Vic

Returning to the stage after working as an MP for 23 years, Glenda Jackson’s decision to take the title role in Shakespeare’s tragedy has made this show hotly anticipated. It’s something of a relief, then, to report that the Oscar-winning actress gives a commanding performance. Her Lear may not be the most emotional, but it is subtle and intelligent. No time is wasted debating the gender blind casting – she’s doing Lear, get over it – the delivery sounds fantastic while pathos and power build masterfully. As if confirmation were needed, it’s clear Jackson is not afraid to take risks, showing a surprising element of mischievousness during the most painful scenes.

A stellar line-up joins Jackson, but nobody challenges her eminence – which is not surprising, but perhaps a little disappointing? Too many cast members seem burdened by ideas from director Deborah Warner. There are great performances from Celia Imrie and Jane Horrocks (Goneril and Regan). But overall there’s a tendency to try too hard to make a mark: case in points are Simon Manyonda’s yoga-posing Edmond, Morfydd Clark’s over-earnest Cordelia and a misguided choice of accent for Sargon Yelda’s Kent. Harry Melling holds his own as Edgar, despite a ridiculous bin-bag nappy. Rhys Ifans is less successful with his Superman costume for the Fool. There’s more to his role than being funny, of course, but some lines are supposed to tickle us – instead Ifans eats a raw egg to get attention.

With a set of projections and black rubber sheeting, designed by Warner with Jean Kalman, there are plenty of clever moves and gory touches (watch out for flying eyeballs) that provide excitement. But abandoned, surely deliberately, is a sense of a society – when and where all this is taking place. Warner wants to deal with abstracts, which is her prerogative, and some of the play’s themes do gain when treated in this way (the lust for power is seen more starkly without a context). But surely a trick is missed in making this King Lear feel outside politics? More concerning, drama is distinctly lacking as a sense of predestination comes to the fore. It’s admirable that no laurels were sat on, but attempts to make this more than Glenda Jackson’s show don’t quite work.

Until 3 December 2016

www.oldvictheatre.com

Photo by Manuel Harlan

“Imogen” at Shakespeare’s Globe

Matthew Dunster’s new production of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline is bravely “renamed and reclaimed”. Focusing on the female lead – after all, she has the majority of the lines – is enlightening and provides a star role for Maddy Hill that she proves commanding in. This new take on Shakespeare fits well with artistic director Emma Rice’s vision for the Globe.

Praise first: Dunter’s ability to tell the story is superb. Cymbeline has a complicated plot with plenty of disguises but this production is a model of clarity. The idea of updating the play, with contemporary gang culture and the drug trade is good. The use of voiceovers is inspired. Likewise, casting a deaf actor (William Grint), signing his role as one of Imogen’s long-lost brothers, brings out raw emotions marvellously. There’s a declaratory style that some performers struggle with, and ironically feels old fashioned, but the physicality of this show is commendable.

The biggest coup comes from the work of designer Jon Bausor and choreographer Christopher Akrill. Bausor uses a giant plastic curtain and strip lights to set the scene. Purists won’t like the fact that the theatre’s charm isn’t taken into account, but the cinematic feel of the design is visually arresting and in keeping with the whole. Akrill’s dance adds poetic moments and makes the fight scenes stunning, so much so that bursts of aerial acrobatics seem unnecessary.

But while it all looks great, there’s a flaw here. Cymbeline is a notoriously difficult play, with a plot defying credulity and a final scene so full of revelations it is difficult not to laugh. Unfortunately, Dunster seems determined to play the whole thing for comedy.

Attempts to reflect the violence of this society are unsuccessful. Only Jonathan McGuinness in the title role manages to be frightening. The rest of the cast are hampered by too many interjections just for laughs. Matthew Needham’s Giacomo is a case in point; the disturbing scene where he spies on Imogen in bed becomes a lark. Suffering most is Cloten, played with conviction by Joshua Lacey: the role is reduced to a strutting cock (yes, we get the joke) and a character that should be terrifying becomes a lame joke.

Time after time humour deflates tension, leaving the text flat. There seems little faith in the play’s power to move an audience and the outcome is monotone if not monotonous. Dunster plays out his strategy boldly – credit to him – I just happen to disagree with it.

Until 16 October 2016

www.shakespearesglobe.com

Photo by Tristram Kenton