Tag Archives: Shakespeare

“Much Ado About Nothing” at the National Theatre

Simon Godwin’s solid production of Shakespeare’s comedy is perfect for the summer. Setting a play about confusion and miscommunication in a hotel add a farcical, holiday vibe. With live music and an intelligent nod to the play’s self-referentiality, it all adds up to a fine show. The casting of John Heffernan and Katherine Parkinson makes the evening well above average.

Heffernan and Parkinson are great as the enemies-to-lovers Benedict and Beatrice. From the start, Benedict’s man-about-town act as a confirmed bachelor is only skin deep – which adds to the humour. Heffernan ensures we can tell Benedict is a sweet cynic. As surely everyone’s favourite Shakespearean heroine, Parkinson is suitably spiky but brings an interesting edge to the role. Together their “merry war of words” is fantastic.

Ioanna-Kimbook-and-Phoebe-Horn-in-Much-Ado-About-Nothing-credit-Manuel-Harlan
Ioanna Kimbook and Phoebe Horn

It may be ungenerous to point out that the leads’ comic timing is considerably better than the rest of the cast – but it is noticeable. There is firm support for them, especially a good Don Pedro in Ashley Zhangazha, who makes plans for mischief believable. The play’s second love story has a sweet Hero in Ioanna Kimbook and her maid manages ever better – Phoebe Horn makes the most of Margaret’s every moment.

It’s all jolly and it looks great – Anna Fleischle and Evie Gurney’s set and costume designs are a pleasure – but it might be a little slow? A lot of pace is lost with Dogberry, a head of security here, despite David Fynn’s efforts. (And if you want better malapropisms, then head next door for Jack Absolute Flies Again.) The curtain for the interval falls at the moment of the play’s nasty deception, when the marriage of Hero and Claudio is put at risk by the plotting villain Don John. This can be the point where you lose patience with the play (or is that just me?).

Happily, and unusually, the action then takes off. Heffernan is very good at Benedict’s macho moments and Parkinson shows us how deeply Beatrice feels. Kimbook also comes into her own (especially during a scene change).

It’s still not clear why Hero’s lover Claudio, who has treated her so badly, is forgiven (Eben Figueiredo, who takes the role, seems puzzled, too). I guess that’s really Shakespeare’s fault. Godwin deals thoughtfully with the play’s flaws. After the tension, the relief of a party works well. Even Dogberry, recast as a lounge singer, is welcome. The celebration may be brief but as a finale it’s fantastic.

Until 10 September 2022

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photos by Manuel Harlan

“The Tempest” at Shakespeare’s Globe

Sean Holmes’ new production of Shakespeare’s late work puts forward the comedy and romance in the play. With eye-catching, crowd-pleasing touches, this tempest is light and fun.

The storm that starts the play is brief – it looks good but I barely heard a line. The magical island the action happens on is akin to a holiday resort, populated by inflatables and palm trees, with Prospero and Miranda sunning themselves. Caliban is the staff – he even has a badge.

So, lots of silliness and not much time for the scholarly debates that surround the play. Instead the productions strongest moments come with getting laughs. There’s a fine Trinculo and Stefano (Ralph Davis and George Fouracres who make a great team). And unusually, Ciarán O’Brien’s Caliban gets laughs. Peter Bourke makes the pompous Gonzalo funnier that I’ve seen before.

Ralph Davis, George Fouracres and Ciaran O'Brien in The Tempest at Shakespeare's Globe (credit Marc Brenner)
Ralph Davis, George Fouracres and Ciarán O’Brien

The humour is hard work though – the comedy effortful. And it isn’t particularly original: including the crowd is something directors at the Globe can never resist and it seems a pop song in Shakespeare is obligatory (even if the selection of Three Lions is topical). The jokes land and a lot of additions (delivered in an adlibbed style) are good. Yet it is Rachel Hannah Clarke’s Ariel who stands out for being understated and still funny. The irony that Ariel grounds the production is, like Clarke’s fantastic performance, the subtlest thing in the show.

The play’s romance is strong too. Miranda and Ferdinand (Nadi Kemp-Sayfi and Olivier Huband) make a sweet couple – they get giggles as well. But the price paid for the fun is predictable. There’s little tension or suspense. And when Holmes tries to do more than have fun, the production stumbles. Take the masque scene for the newlyweds (always tricky): any suggestion of challenge is lost in laughs. The production’s high spirits mean the supernatural in the play is only a side show.

Ferdy Roberts’ Prospero is still interesting. This mage is more than a touch mad and Roberts manages dignity despite spending much of the show in Speedos. But the idea that Prospero is enjoying his revenge becomes overpowering. When depth or emotion is needed, despite Roberts’ skill, it jars. A partying Prospero just doesn’t work – while the execution here deserves praise, the idea does not.

Until 22 October 2022

www.shakespearesglobe.com

Photos by Marc Brenner

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden

Sara Aniqah Malik’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s comedy for Iris Theatre brings fun to the fore. There are flaws, and inconsistencies, with perhaps less actual Shakespeare than you might expect. But it’s a safe bet that most will enjoy this high energy, full-of-ideas show.

The action is set in the Athens Academy in 1996 (maybe the year suggests Ancient History for its young audience?). Shakespeare at school is fine for the story’s teenage lovers – Freddy Elletson and Ricky Oakley have their finest moments playing Lysander and Demetrius with tongues firmly in cheek – but the conceit fails other aspects of the play.

The acting troupe are recast as a Glee Club, which is jolly enough but forced (why not just the school drama department?). Theseus and Hippolyta are, predictably, Prom King and Queen, but, like their fairy counterparts Oberon and Titania, the roles lack tension. The additional text is witty, and plenty of the comedy touches land, but there’s an awful lot lost.

Magical is probably the word most used in connection with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but not here. Despite Ailsa Joy’s impressive efforts as Puck – she’s great – the play’s fairies and potions don’t fit in. Drama is constantly deflated in the search for a joke. Most dangerously, there’s a strain on comprehension: the fear here is that you need to know the original play to work out what is going on and to get the jokes.

There are new ideas that illustrate a good deal of intelligence. The production wants to raise the question of consent. And the women in the play get more of a say in how they are treated. But these touches are too small or come too late and they sit heavily in the humour. Malik’s direction doesn’t help. Too much of the production needs tightening, especially in marshalling the crowd at this promenade performance and controlling the audience focus. Likewise, with the performances – there’s a lot of running around, which is impressive, but distracting.

Be not afeard

The production is invested in audience participation. In a bold strategy, you can:

  • dance at the prom
  • judge the play
  • become a fairy and tickle Bottom’s ears
  • and, in the case of one (poor) soul, become a fully-fledged member of the Glee Club

If this strikes fear into you, I understand. If the above sounds great, then this is the show for you.

Zena Carswell

The strongest comedians, Richard Holt (who plays Bottom) and the excellent Zena Carswell, are superb with the crowd. There are risks with calling on members of the public (a press night isn’t the best time to judge, as friends who are performers too turn up!) but best of luck to all. Drawing on good will is how Malik aims to create the friendship Puck calls for at the end of the play – and hopefully get the applause the show’s efforts deserve.

Until 13 August 2022

www.iristheatre.ticketsolve.com/shows

Photos by Katie Edwards

“Tempest” at the Pleasance Theatre

You can see why the Wildcard’s gig-theatre style has its fans. There’s a raw energy to its take on Shakespeare’s Romance that has an anarchic appeal. Director and adapter James Meteyard’s show has lots of ideas, some of them interesting. But there are also lots of problems.

One strength comes with comedy. Shakespeare’s subplot of shipwrecked sailors who join with Caliban to take over the play’s island setting is seldom funny. But with plenty of ad-libs, Eleanor House’s trombone-playing Stephano and Gigi Zahir’s drag queen Trinculo are a lot of fun. Zahir’s “Shutteth the fucketh upeth” is a long way from Shakespeare – but it works. Throwing in a catwalk show is a brilliant twist.

Meanwhile, both the romance and the revenge in The Tempest get lost. Kate Littlewood’s restrained Prospero and Ruby Crepin-Glynne’s savvy Miranda feel like additions rather than central characters. Alexander Bean, so impressive as Caliban, gives a shadowy Duke Alonso. There are too many stumbles from too many of the performers. And of course, when pauses or fumbles start, the atmosphere becomes uncomfortable.

“The isle is full of noises”


The production is notable for boasting Jasmine Morris as its composer. Not so much for the few songs that are included (Meteyard’s lyrics for these are poor) but rather for the soundscape, created with plenty of invention and hugely atmospheric. Yet what should be the show’s triumph also stalls. Whether this is Daniel Balfour’s sound design or technical faults isn’t clear. But the numerous sound effects (which aid Loren O’Dair’s strong performance as Ariel) stop and start abruptly. Audibility is poor.

Meteyard and movement director Jade Hackett work hard to make sure the actor-musicians aren’t stuck with their instruments. There’s a revolving stage and even some aerial acrobatics as well as ambitious lighting from Sherry Coenen to create dynamism. But, yet again, this is uneven. Moments that impress, with a lot of thought behind them, jar with the cast wandering around. The final scenes are far too static.

That the show is too messy for me might be a matter of personal taste. But while only inspired by Shakespeare – with favourite scenes picked out – the truncated approach makes Tempest difficult to follow. The result is a niche affair that shows the original as a piece that needs balance and a play that’s surprisingly easy to wreck.

Until 3 April 2022

www.pleasance.co.uk

Photos by Lidia Crisafulli

“Hamlet” at the Young Vic

The star casting of Cush Jumbo in the title role of Shakespeare’s tragedy does not disappoint. One of the finest Hamlets I’ve seen, Jumbo gives a stirring performance of clarity, considerable humour and intelligence. This is the philosopher prince, keen to debate and discuss – a wit with a love of words.

In case you’re wondering, Jumbo plays Hamlet as a man (there’s no change of gender in the text). It’s how convincing she is as a swaggering youth that surprises, balancing bravado with insecurity just like many a teenage boy. The humour is excellently handled. Let’s be honest, not all the jokes in Hamlet work – some need a little extra help – and Jumbo seems to know exactly when to provide this.

Tara Fitzgerald in Hamlet credit Helen Murray
Tara Fitzgerald

Surprisingly, beyond casting a woman in the lead, director Greg Hersov’s commendable production ends up conservative, in the sense that it is restrained. Firstly, some performances are strikingly muted. Adrian Dunbar’s Claudius is a forceful study in minimalism. Incredibly understated, he barely raises his voice. The performance is all the more powerful for its control. The same praise can be given to Tara Fitzgerald’s Gertrude. Her delivery of Ophelia’s death, and even her own death, are remarkably flat. The royal couple are so repressed they are frightening.

Jonathan Ajayi and Joseph Marcell
Jonathan Ajayi and Joseph Marcell

As a contrast, Laertes and Ophelia carry much of the burden of emotion in the play. Hersov reminds us that Hamlet is the story of two families. Along with Joseph Marcell’s appealing Polonius, Norah Lopez Holden and Jonathan Ajayi create the sense of a family unit with remarkable speed and efficiency. 

This Hamlet is an austere affair, from Anna Fleischle’s minimalist design to the sparse modern touches. There’s an edit, too – a bold one – as Fortinbras is excised. It’s all to focus on how cerebral both character and play are: this is a Hamlet for thinkers.

Plotters, too, of course. There’s Hamlet’s procrastination – but note how Jumbo carefully lays out thoughts. Hersov emphasises what a bunch of thinkers this court contains. Claudius doesn’t really try to pray; he’s working out why he can’t. And the scene of his plotting with Laertes is a proper sit-down meeting.

The production is a move away from those that have emphasised performance and acting. The travelling players suffer a little as a result and action is minimalised. But, as an interpretation focusing on argument and discussion, Hersov starts a debate about the play that this excellent production wins.

Until 13 November 2021

www.youngvic.org

Photos by Helen Murray

“Romeo and Juliet” from Metcalfe Gordon Productions

Top marks for trying. For this filmed theatre production of Shakespeare’s tragedy, director David Evans has used technology to carry on working during Covid-19. Using green screens and CGI sets means protective social distancing is possible for a large cast. Unfortunately, the results are uneven; you end up missing live theatre more than ever.

The technology created a lot of work for editor Ryan Metcalfe – his job is mind-boggling – but the results are disheartening. Performing scenes individually, hugely difficult for actors, creates a stilted feel that is too frequently uncomfortable. The detailed planning for each moment is distractingly transparent.

Jessica Murrain as Prince in Romeo & Juliet credit Ryan Metcalfe Preevue
Jessica Murrain

Evans has a firm hand on direction. There is an air of restraint, with many performances understated, as well as physically static, that presumably aided editing. Sensible and understandable, it provides an interesting take for Vinta Morgan’s Friar and works well for Jessica Murrain’s Prince. But most of the time, the reserve becomes monotonal and sometimes downright odd.

Worse still, at a time when so many miss it, the lack of human contact between performers is painful. Moments when characters would have touched, to emphasise any kind of emotion, stand out. You can sense the instincts of performers have been denied. The production is truly of the moment. But could this lack, somehow, have been used poignantly? Instead, it’s just… sad.

Emily Redpath and Sam Tutty credit Ryan Metcalfe Preevue
Emily Redpath and Sam Tutty

The show is saved by its leads (with a little help from Derek Jacobi reading the prologue) and an impressive score from Sam Dinley. Romeo and Juliet do get to touch. Evans has secured a fine Juliet with Emily Redpath. Any struggles come from the role rather than Redpath – as a young woman Juliet’s life is more controlled, an inadvertent insight into the play. Redpath emphasises youth and makes the part moving.

The show belongs to Sam Tutty’s Romeo. The Dear Evan Hanson star is hugely impressive, bringing a natural feel to the lines, without denying their poetry, and a confidence to the part that is captivating. Frequently, his reactions are more interesting than anything else going on. This experiment with a new kind of theatre did not work for me. But fans of Tutty will not be disappointed. 

Until 27 February 2020

www.romeojuliet2021.com

Photos by credit Ryan Metcalfe / Preevue

"A Midsummer Night’s Dream" from Shakespeare’s Globe

The three groups of characters within Shakespeare’s much-loved comedy provide possibly too easy a scheme to judge a production. But given director Dominic Dromgoole’s expertise with the work of Oscar Wilde, here’s hoping he forgives me for not resisting temptation and following it for a rough assessment of his superb 2013 production.

First, the doubled-up roles of those who rule – Athens and the fairy world – deliver two excellent performances. John Light makes a forceful Theseus and downright virile Oberon: there’s a perfect diffidence about his marriage to a not-so-willing bride and a gorgeous Irish brogue as he plays tricks on his fairy queen. Taking to the stage she is now in charge of as artistic director, Michelle Terry is wonderful as a still fiery Amazon and a Titania who engenders a good deal of emotion.

Our “hempen homespuns”, the workmen who put on a play within the play, are also superb. Led by Pearce Quigley as Bottom, a role he was surely born to play, the clog-wearing workers get laughs before they open their mouths. Quigley has some excellent ad-libbing and a deadpan tone that makes a nice change for the role; his ironic delivery of a “monstrous little voice” and an actor’s temper tantrum are two of many highlights. Moonshine’s dead dog is another!

With the final group of the four Athenian lovers, things aren’t so good. Demetrius and Lysander are too cartoonish and Hermia a touch bland. It’s left to Sarah MacRae’s Helena to get the laughs, try as hard as the others do, creating unbalanced scenes that drag a little. Two out of three doesn’t sound that great. But Dromgoole has a vision for the play as a whole that sets his work apart. Steeped in rural mysticism (aided by the work of designer Jonathan Fensom) that Shakespeare’s audience would have recognised and is appropriate for the venue, there’s a powerful cohesion to the production. With a surprising amount of violence, danger and some pretty scary spirits, Dromgoole brings a tension that the play can sometimes lack. You probably can’t have a perfect production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream but, with a nod to an unsettling nightmare, this one comes respectably close.

Available until 28 June 2020

To support, visit www.shakespearesglobe.com

Photo by John Wildgoose

“Macbeth” from Shakespeare’s Globe

Even a virtual trip to London’s South Bank is welcome during the current Covid-19 lockdown. Macbeth was filmed on a wet day earlier this year – how I miss that peculiarly British pastime of watching outdoor theatre in the rain, and would happily sacrifice the current fine weather for the chance to be a groundling again! Unfortunately, the uncomfortable fact remains that director Cressida Brown’s production – fast and full of ideas as it is – is below standard.

Brown is keen to keep the action moving and anxious to show she has fresh thinking to offer. While surely defendable in a debate, the ideas don’t work well on stage. Maybe there’s too much of an eye on provoking discussion in the school room? Too many innovations fail, and some are downright awful. It’s all the more disappointing as the relatively small cast works hard, only to end up burdened by the direction.

First the famous witches. They arise from a pile of dead bodies on the battlefield, which is a good idea. But all three fail to be scary. The attempts at a playful air aren’t even creepy. Driven by the reference to a “bloody child” in Act 4 scene 1, the apparitions of the witch’s “masters” are dolls… and the scene ends up closer to funny than fearsome.

That the Scottish court, with Georgia Lowe’s design, is a contrast to blood-stained soldiers isn’t bad. But making Dickon Tyrrell’s Duncan a golf-playing, egotistic fool (even if some rulers are just that) makes it hard to care about what happens to him. As for his son Malcolm, the idea of emphasising his schoolboy age makes sense but comes back to bite Brown and makes Aidan Cheng’s performance in the role regrettable. Putting him in shorts and Harry Potter glasses really doesn’t work when he tries to trick Macduff as to his “voluptuousness”. Cheng’s delivery is so uninspired that other characters don’t even bother to stay onstage and listen to him.

There are bigger ideas and surprises in the show. Most will be shocked that Lady Macbeth’s encounter with the doctor has disappeared – I assume there’s some academic thinking behind this, but it leaves the audience (let alone Elly Condron, who takes the role) a little cheated. That Lady Macbeth is visibly pregnant during most of the show fits in with a debate most do know about. But, without explicit references in the text, all Condron can really do is rub her padded tummy a lot. Oh dear.

Thankfully, the show still has points to enjoy. Condron’s chemistry with her husband is good; that their relationship fraught from the start aids her powerful performance. The dynamic between Macbeth and Banquo benefits from Samuel Oatley’s strong performance as the latter. Best of all, taking the title role, is Ekow Quartey. His Macbeth is puzzled, frightened and nervous, even suicidal at one point. Good at showing panic and great in his fight scenes, Quartey can work the crowd as he goes to “mingle with society” during the banqueting debacle. It’s just a shame that this fine Macbeth finds himself in such a poor production.

Photo by John Wildgoose

Available until UK secondary schools reopen on globeplayer.tv

To support, visit www.shakespearesglobe.com

“The Two Noble Kinsmen” from Shakespeare’s Globe

Grateful as I am for the various shows put online during lockdown, this one made me sad! Of course, this was never the intention behind Barrie Rutter’s fine production, but it only serves the truth that filmed versions highlight how much better live theatre is and why we miss it so much.

Having seen the show ‘for real’ and being happy to watch it again indicates the strength of Rutter’s work. This is far from Shakespeare’s finest play: written with John Fletcher, the love-at-first-sight romance seems ludicrous, the characters schematic and the themes of honour silly. If it weren’t for beautiful poetic moments (and the fact he isn’t guiltless of all three problems elsewhere) you’d question whether Will had anything to do it.

There is still a grandeur behind Moyo Akandé and Jude Akuwudike, who play Hippolyta and Theseus, showing us courtly concerns with a touch of humanity. And Ellora Torchia does well as the princess who has to choose between the titular heroes – one of whom will die – showing an appropriate incredulity as well as sensitivity. Staying centre stage when the final fight goes on, this “maiden-hearted” bride-to-be proves fascinating. The kinsmen, played by Paul Stocker and Bryan Dick, are great – suitably dashing but also funny – with a similar knowing air behind the performances. But, on film, none of this talent is quite enough to make it all engaging.

The camera shows up all the text’s troubles. Stripped bare, without the atmosphere of the theatre, the play drags and all the work done to inject energy or touches of cynicism is lost. The excellent treatment of “country pastimes”, including a fantastic dance, sounded much better live and were full of details lost in the filming. One criticism stands: the unrequited love of the jailer’s daughter (Francesca Mills), which literally drives her mad, is played too much for laughs. And on a screen this poor version of Ophelia feels even colder and crueller.

The biggest problem is that, with the camera dictating what we see, a sense of momentum doesn’t come across. With characters “beyond love and beyond reason”, it’s necessary to drive the action along, which Rutter did with distractions including music and musicians. It made for an effective night out. Nobody wants our theatres open again more than those who work in them, and this show reminds us how much better it is to see plays where they belong.

Photo by John Wildgoose

Available until 17 May 2020 on globeplayer.tv

To support, visit www.shakespearesglobe.com

“Twelfth Night” from NTLive

As another example of its diversity, this week’s offering from the National Theatre is Shakespeare. The interesting idea driving Simon Godwin’s production, which dates from 2017, could also be said to be diversity – challenging this most famous of gender-swapping comedies by openly acknowledging LGBTQ identities and gay marriage. The results of such a contemporary spin are mixed, but a strong cast makes the show solid.

To illustrate Godwin’s conceit, take Oliver Chris’s excellent Duke, who falls for Viola when he thinks she is a he. You expect jokes from the confusion, often pretty childish ones, but such laughs are held back. It’s a credit to Chris’s comic skills that the role is still funny. Likewise, Antonio’s feelings for Viola’s twin, Sebastian, are openly romantic… I remember that at school this was only coyly suggested.

A more eye-catching example of Godwin’s transformations comes with his star casting of Tamsin Greig and the turning of Malvolio into Malvolia. The female steward’s open adoration for her mistress Olivia (a role Phoebe Fox does very well with) doesn’t bat any eyelids. Nor is it a source of schoolboy fun. Of course, it shouldn’t be either. The joke for Shakespeare was one of status anyway, but note – this is a gag that Godwin ignores.

As with Chris, it’s down to Greig to still be funny and that she is – very. She gives a brilliant performance it is hard to praise enough, getting laughs with every line, working the audience to perfection. A nod to Mrs Danvers from Rebecca is genius. And there’s more. Grieg and Godwin don’t let us forget the religion in the play. Also, they tackle the character becoming “common recreation” exceptionally well. Let’s face it, the practical joke played on Malvolio/a ain’t funny. Greig makes sure the character retains some dignity and there’s a hard edge to her promise of revenge that is welcome.

Greig makes this Twelfth Night worth watching and it is clearly a work with intelligence behind it. Unfortunately, lots of ideas seem motivated by trying to make the show modern – and none of these are things we haven’t seen before. There’s a car on stage, a hospital monitor, a nightclub and a hot tub, while the Duke has a personal trainer and a birthday party. To all of this you can say, why not? But you can also say, why? Along with an ugly set from Soutra Gilmour, which highlights that both she and Godwin have used the auditorium poorly, and some inane music from Dan Jackson, the production does not equal its cast.

Twelfth Night at the National Theatre credit Marc Brenner
Tim Mcmullan, Doon Mackichan and Daniel Rigby

What of the play’s supposed heroes, the shipwreck-separated siblings, Viola and Sebastian? Amongst a good number of comics – Tim McMullan, Daniel Rigby and Doon Mackichan all need to be added here – the twins are, ahem, reduced to straight men. Both characters are only acted upon, robbed of agency, which you could argue is fair enough. But it’s only strong performances from Tamara Lawrance and Daniel Ezra that stop the characters from being boring and introduce any emotion into this interesting but inert production.

Available until Wednesday 29 April 2020

To support visit nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photos by Marc Brenner