Tag Archives: Simon Godwin

“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

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


Photos by Manuel Harlan

“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

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Photos by Marc Brenner

“Antony and Cleopatra” at the National Theatre

Lavish is the only word to describe Simon Godwin’s new production of Shakespeare’s epic historical romance. With an iconic love story, battles for an empire, a star cast and luxurious fittings, everything about the play is overblown. It makes sense for Godwin to follow Shakespeare’s lead, but so much exaggeration does end up tiring.

This is a traditional production. Despite some modern uniforms and a TV screen, the delivery is clear and there are no fancy ideas driving it. Quality is the aim and that is achieved. Hildegard Bechtler’s set makes grand use of the space, Cleopatra’s costumes by Evie Gurney could come from a catwalk and Michael Bruce’s live music, with a flavour of both the East and the military, is so good it deserves to be released.

The performances are strong, too. Sophie Okonedo takes the daunting title role in her stride. She makes a beguiling queen and is carefully understated. The constant performance Cleopatra sets up (the character is aware she always has an audience) is made to feel natural and entertaining. Ably supported by Gloria Obianyo as her servant Charmian, the queen moves in an Egyptian court dripping with sophistication. But all that confidence ends up a problem. It robs the tension from Antony’s first departure and, more importantly, deflates the play’s obsessive insistence on fate. It’s easy to believe Cleopatra’s pride would lead her to a final suicide, but isn’t she supposed to see it as an escape from fickle fortune?

There’s a similar stubbornness in the other star name, Ralph Fiennes. His “old ruffian” Antony is convincingly down to earth – he runs off for a drink as if going into battle. But when his authority “melts”, it’s hard to remember it was ever there. The “Roman thoughts” that Cleopatra fears will overcome him don’t seem to enter his mind. Nonetheless, it is fantastic to see a performer who can hold the Olivier stage as well as Fiennes. Both Fiennes and Okonedo deliver the verse with a natural fluency that is a high point of the show. This may be too safe an affair for some, but Godwin and his cast deal with a difficult play with extravagant competency.

Until 19 January 2019


Photo by Johan Persson

“Sunset at the Villa Thalia” at the National Theatre

You can take the playwright out of Sloane Square and yet, it appears from Alexis Kaye Campbell’s new play, London is never far away. The subject here is the history of modern Greece, the coup in 1967 and its aftermath in the writer’s mother’s home country. But when an arty English couple snap up a second home at a bargain price, it feels as if the London housing crisis is giving rise to debates about politics and intervention.

Elizabeth McGovern
Elizabeth McGovern

Simon Godwin’s tight direction and a superb cast are the best things here. Theo and Charlotte, brilliantly performed by Sam Crane and Pippa Nixon, are a playwright and actress. Yes, the self-referentiality is tiresome, but it’s in keeping with the theme of personal responsibility in the play. Contrasts with an American couple, holiday friends, are fun and Elizabeth McGovern from Downton Abbey is a revelation as the drunken June, who likes her fruit punch without the fruit. It’s June’s husband, a shady American official called Harvey, that Kaye Campbell does best with: he’s a dark figure who claims his dirty dealings secure freedom and enable democracy (with its ‘twin’ the theatre) to flourish. Balancing charisma, intelligence and danger, Ben Miles excels in the role.

Sam Crane and Ben Miles
Sam Crane and Ben Miles

The laudable, openly declared question of ‘What would you do?’ is fair game. Cramming politics into a play is never easy, being blatant is fine. Nonetheless, it’s all too easy to dismiss many arguments here as naïve – left or right – even though Miles and Nixon are riveting. The effort is thorough, the play hard working and this surprisingly traditional piece is an entertaining, erudite affair. The playwright within the play is demoralised that his work is “quietly political”. Applying the same assessment to Kaye Campbell might not please him, but the passion often feels contrived, the arguments too easy, and so that label fits.

Until 4 August 2016


Photos by Manuel Harlan

“Richard II” at Shakespeare’s Globe

While The Merchant of Venice quote, handily emblazoned on tote bags in the Globe’s shop, tells us “all that glisters is not gold”, the theatre’s new production of Richard II is a solid 24-carat affair. Shakespeare’s deposed king is often presented as a star vehicle, but director Simon Godwin provides a carefully crafted ensemble piece that gives every character their due and is all the better for doing so.

Which is not to say that Charles Edwards isn’t magnificent in the title role. Against the golden backdrop of Paul Wills’ set and accompanied by Stephen Warbeck’s impressive score for trombones, Edwards strikes a suave figure. But it doesn’t take long to see a delusional aspect to this infantile King, set up by a prologue scene of his childhood coronation. In an admirably understated performance, especially during his imprisonment, Edwards shows this hollow crown is unhinged and tarnished by religious fervour.

The impact Richard’s divine right to rule has on society is highlighted by the luckless Aumerle, a role that Graham Butler gets a great deal from. One of Richard’s “caterpillar” sycophants, then betrayers, like his ruler, he seems strangely juvenile. One reservation: in this serious show, Godwin introduces humour into the scene of Aumerle’s treachery. While the text suggests jokes and the piece allows William Chubb and Sarah Woodward to shine as the Yorks, surely going all out for laughs is a misfire.

Much better are the muddled motivations of Richard’s courtiers. Godwin creates a sense of unprecedented events unfolding – with Chubb, again excellent, as a conflicted Regent and a superbly sinister Northumberland played by Jonny Glynn. Even the gardening scene, which I always think should be pruned, is handled well, using the audience in the complicit manner that directors at the Globe can seldom resist.

Godwin’s usurping Bolingbroke is a relatively complex figure, suggesting that events might have overtaken a once loyal subject. David Sturzaker gives a sterling performance in this strangely opaque role; a virile presence, we see the politician but also an emotional intensity that adds a layer to a play so much about surface presentation. Underlying the production’s traditional feel and gorgeous look is a satisfyingly intelligent assessment of the play’s themes.

Until 18 October 2015


Photo by Johan Persson

“The Beaux’ Stratagem” at the National Theatre

A Restoration comedy of love and manners, so steeped in cynicism that its heroes plot to marry for money, George Farquhar’s classic is a snapshot of 18th-century society that brims with life and adventure. Replete with desperate gentlemen, crooked innkeepers and comedy highwaymen, Simon Godwin’s revival feels credible and fresh.

Samuel Barnett and Geoffrey Streatfeild make appealing leads as Aimwell and Archer – the “marksmen” out to hunt rich women. Pippa Bennett-Warner and Susannah Fielding are similarly engaging as their love interests. Fielding carries the part of the miserably married Mrs Sullen well – tricky in a production that seems extravagantly enamoured of her. Mrs Sullen is pivotal, yes, and Fielding embodies her with sense and sensuality, but the production halts, shouting “This is important” so loudly that it becomes patronising.

Jpeg 16. Geoffrey Streatfeild (Archer) and Samuel Barnett (Aimwell)_The Beaux' Stratagem_credit Manuel Harlan
Geoffrey Streatfeild as Archer and Samuel Barnett as Aimwell

There are some great insults in The Beaux’ Strategem: I look forward to being able to use “prostrate engineer”. And Farquhar’s similes are superb, describing marriage as “two carcasses joined unnaturally together”. The cast, along with music, provide nice comic touches, but Godwin blunts the play’s momentum: smaller parts aren’t tamed enough and the initially impressive set by Lizzie Clachan becomes cumbersome.

There’s a great swashbuckling fight where we see how Archer “fights, loves, and banters, all in a breath” and for a moment the show lifts off. But we’re back to down to earth, with added sentimentality, as our heroes become disarmed by love. Maybe it’s Godwin’s ponderous build-up to these unexpected changes of heart that has slowed things down? If there is a strategy here, it has failed. The whole show feels too… thorough. That should be praise, but a lack of spirit and spontaneity means that the production just isn’t funny enough.

Until 20 September 2015


Photos by Manuel Harlan

“Man and Superman” at the National Theatre

Weighing in at three-and-a-half hours, Simon Godwin’s mammoth production of George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman is a thrilling achievement. Godwin’s deft direction means not a minute is wasted. He draws out the play’s humour and his unfailing grasp on Shaw’s philosophy and originality makes you think he truly is the Superman of this production.

Or maybe the hero is Ralph Fiennes? He brings remarkable intelligence, technical ability and stamina to the role of John Tanner, making much ado about matrimony. Just as good, Indira Varma gives a mercurial performance as the heroine, Ann Whitefield, who aims to marry confirmed bachelor Tanner. Varma has to deal with Shaw’s turn-of-the-century gender politics (I daren’t use the F word) and ideas about a ‘life force’, which she does with a fresh, mischievous feel. Likewise, Faye Castelow is excellent as the equally powerful Violet, ensuring the play’s subplot remains integral. Nicholas Le Prevost is sheer class as Roebuck Ramsden, the conventional foil to Tanner’s revolutionary ideas. Finally, Tim McMullan gives the performance of his career as a brigand who kidnaps Tanner, then as the devil in a dream sequence, getting wails of laughter from the audience.

Jpeg 8
Tim McMullan and Indira Varma

While the production is superb, including go–to video designer Luke Halls’ work, which is refreshingly understated, it is, quite rightly, Shaw and his play that claim your attention. Man And Superman makes you realise why Shaw gets his own adjective. It’s not just the laughs, and there are plenty of them, that are distinctly Shavian. The radical ideas, which still push boundaries, are bold and challenging. Describing your heroine as Lady Methuselah is brave, no matter how tongue-in-cheek. Although it premiered at the Royal Court in 1905, when it comes to form, the play is strikingly modern. Act three’s strange interlude, where Tanner is recast as Don Juan, has characters revelling in the scene’s oddity, highlighting how “extremely abstract and metaphysical” the play is. In short, Shaw’s wit, style and originality surely make him the Superman of the piece.

Until 17 May 2015


Photos by Johan Persson

“NSFW” at the Royal Court

The name of Lucy Kirkwood’s new play for the Royal Court stands for ‘Not Safe For Work’. Set in the bitchy world of London media, it comes as no surprise that there’s little that’s safe in these particular offices. This sharp satire invites the theatre audience into an industry where employees will agree all too quickly to be humiliated, or compromise their private lives, in order to get ahead or simply stay in the job. To those who’ve never worked in magazine journalism it’s a delicious parody full of laughs; for those who have, it’s painfully close to the bone.

Kirkwood’s play has the benefit of skilful direction from Simon Godwin and superb performances. The magazine editor characters have something of the stereotype about them, but this potential problem is dealt with nimbly, thanks to sharp dialogue that means the play never strays into lazy parody. Julian Barratt and Janie Dee both excel as the “troglodyte” editor of a men’s magazine and the self-confessed “Menopausal old hag” who works for an over-sharing womens title, respectively. The younger characters, desperate for work and predictably overqualified, are wonderfully drawn: Henry Lloyd-Hughes gives a great comic turn as the trustafarian drawn to journalism, Esther Smith expertly judges her role as a young feminist so ashamed of her job she tells people she’s an estate agent, and Sacha Dhawan gives a performance of great charm as an idealist who finds that, in this job, he can’t avoid getting his hands mucky.

Of course, nobody finds the media as interesting as the industry finds itself. Thankfully, Kirkwood’s play uses magazine culture to address broader social concerns. The presentation of women in the media, in particular, is handled in nuanced, thought-provoking style here. While the plight of the younger characters, with whom the play’s sympathies so firmly lie, gives a dark edge and subtlety and balances NSFW’s exquisite portrayal of the excesses of journalism.

Until 24 November 2012


Written 1 November 2012 for The London Magazine