Great Expectations, Bristol Old Vic

5 stars

In Neil Bartlett’s staging of Great Expectations at Bristol Old Vic, you hear the story more than watch it. The chains of the convict, the hammering of the blacksmith, the unhinged humming of Miss Havisham are as much a part of the characters as the costume, expression and lines…

Read the rest of my five-star review of this production in The Independent here

Macbeth, Manchester International Festival, National Theatre Live: review

Kenneth Branagh

Kenneth Branagh. Photo: Giorgia Meschini

Kenneth Branagh and Rob Ashford’s production of Macbeth – the centrepiece of the theatrical branch of this year’s Manchester International Music Festival – is fast-paced and gripping and reminds you that this play isn’t about regal negotiations and royal courts but bloody battles and dark deeds. Forget The Killing, Shakespeare was writing the thrillers of his day and Macbeth has twists, suspense and gore enough to satisfy any crime fan.

The setting is simply brilliant – the deconsecrated St Peter’s church (which has just been taken over by the Hallé Orchestras as its rehearsal space)  had atmosphere in bucket loads and from the opening scene – the three sisters writhing in niches in the wall in the manner, as one reviewer noted, of diabolical inversions of statues of saints – through the rain-drenched opening battle (never usually staged) and to the final chilling showdown, the church became almost an extra character in the play.

This is a world, we are made to realise, which springs from the mud-soaked earth and which is encircled by belief in higher powers.  But enough has been said elsewhere about the production itself – Michael Billington has compared Branagh’s performance to that of Olivier, Christopher Oram’s set has been praised by Susannah Clapp and Dominic Cavendish admired Alex Kingston’s Lady Macbeth.

But unlike the critics, I was watching the show in a cinema in Chesterfield (Cineworld, if you’re wondering). I was a theatre-broadcast virgin – although I’m a regular at opera performances in the cinema – and this new medium, to my mind, threw up a number of problems.

One of the things I most value about going to the theatre is letting my eyes roam around the set – I’ll look at characters who aren’t speaking, I’ll admire the detail of the set, I’ll even peep round at my fellow audience members to look at their expressions. Although your attention is directed by lighting, staging and dialogue, you can choose to rebel.

In the cinema, you’re blinkered. Your gaze is directed by the camera crew. From reading the reviews, for example, I know that Alex Kingston as Lady Macbeth spent the opening battle scene lighting candles at the altar end of the church, and that these candles were gradually extinguished during the rest of the evening. But I missed all of that, because the camera instead dwelt on the battle scene in the opening and only treated the candles as background for the rest of the play.

The second, obvious problem, is that actors project. How else would the punters in row Y hear what was being said? On the big screen, where we’re used to actors whispering and mumbling their lines, the stage volume comes across as simply too loud – something the rest of the group I went with all complained about on leaving the play.

But the thing I missed most of all was the immediacy. Yes, we were watching a live broadcast, but I couldn’t smell the sweat. I could see the spit as Macduff burst his lungs mourning his wife and children, but there was no chance of being sprayed by it. We could watch the sword fight but we didn’t have to duck to avoid the blows. And in a brilliant coup de théâtre, the witches conjured their master with a burst of flame – and in our air-conditioned cushioned cinema in Derbyshire we saw the cramped, uncomfortable audience in that Manchester church leap back in their seats from the sudden appearance of a line of fire.

What I wouldn’t have given to have been in the narrow, sweltering, uncomfortable church pews of St Peter’s. Don’t misunderstand me, I loved watching it on the screen, but this, for me, will never beat the visceral experience of sitting in the stalls. As Macbeth might have put it: ‘to see a play thus is nothing…’

For more information about NT Live visit the National Theatre’s website

The Boy Who Cried Wolf, Bristol Old Vic: review

4 stars

Think you know Aesop’s fables? Think again. Sally Cookson’s production of the famous tales presents a happy-camper tortoise opposite a onesie-sporting hare, a grumpy teenage boy who cries wolf and a rock ‘n’ roll crooner as the sun.

Bristol Old Vic’s outdoor summer show is a consummate piece of storytelling theatre which brings Aesop’s ancient fables – as told through the pen of Michael Morpurgo – to vivid life.

Read the rest of my review of this production in The Independent here

Relative Values, Theatre Royal, Bath: review

3 stars

‘Try to look as if nothing has happened, and when you analyse it, nothing much has.’ Those words spoken by Patricia Hodge’s character in Trevor Nunn’s production of Noël Coward’s Relative Values are factually accurate. After the manner of comedy, we end more or less where we began, the transitory chaos dispersed and order restored. But when ‘nothing’ is as much fun as this, who could object?…

Read the rest of my review of this production in The Independent here

A Thousand Shards of Glass, Mayfest, Bristol

‘Can you walk on broken glass?’ was the urgent question with which I was greeted as I was shown to my seat in a loft above Bristol Old Vic.

‘Erm, I don’t think so.’ I replied, feeling more than a little daft. But at least my question was in English – the previous audience member had been greeted in Arabic…

A Thousand Shards of Glass, directed by Jane Packman and written by Ben Pacey, which I saw as part of Bristol’s Mayfest theatre festival, is a one-man show in which sound is central: it is setting, character, plot and dialogue. The result is a small-scale show which punches well above its weight.

Before the show began, performer Lucy Ellinson warned us not to worry too much about the meanings of the words. Instead, she said, we should let them carry us along without clinging on to literal meaning. And indeed it would be impossible to pin down the exact plot of the piece, but here’s an attempt: our main character – Lucy – seemed to have discovered that the world in which she lived had only two dimensions – coffee tasted like the idea of coffee. And in order to burst back into 3D, she had to get to the top of the tallest building in the city, a glass and steel skyscraper, and sing a song she’d heard in the desert. All the time avoiding the were forces who wanted to stop her.

But that makes A Thousand Shards of Glass sound like nothing more than an audiobook version of The Matrix. And while there were elements that clearly echoed science fiction films like Inception, and spy thrillers like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, this production is also about something much more everyday. It is a lovesong to reality, an ode to sensation.

Lewis Gibson’s sound design is nothing short of brilliant. Helicopters hover just above the theatre, lift machinery clanks into life and, perhaps most vividly of all, there’s an explosion of shattered glass. In the dark of the theatre, I’m sure I wasn’t the only member of the audience to flinch.

But what made the hour-long production whizz by was the virtuoso performance from Lucy Ellinson, who immediately and entirely engaged our sympathies, leading us through the barely-there plot just as she’d led us to our seats at the beginning.

Thought-provoking, open-ended and produced to an exceptionally high standard: A Thousand Shards of Glass was experimental theatre at its best.

A Thousand Shards of Glass has just finished its UK tour. Visit the Jane Packman Company website for more information about this and other projects.

Two Gentlemen of Verona, Tobacco Factory Theatre: review

4 stars

What if there were no magic potion in A Midsummer Night’s Dream? What if your best friend fell for your girl and no enchanted flower could lift the spell? That is the premise of Shakespeare’s rarely performed comedy Two Gentlemen of Verona. And this is the play that director Andrew Hilton and Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory have chosen to stage in rep with their recent Richard III…

Read the rest of my review of this production in The Independent here

Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Bristol Old Vic

Handspring Puppet Company, dir. Tom Morris

How do you represent a charm on stage? How do you conjure a retinue of fairies? How do you show a man transformed into a donkey?

Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler of Handspring Puppet Company are at their best when tackling the impossible. Their best-known venture in the UK is War Horse (how do you create a horse with enough personality to charm an audience?) and now they’ve again joined forces with that production’s director, Tom Morris, with a very different story in their sights.

Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream seems, at first, to be the perfect play for the Handspring treatment. It has illusion at its heart, questions of truth, identity and play-acting. And yet, it is also one of Shakespeare’s most human works: who doesn’t recognise their young self in the four impetuous lovers? Who hasn’t been angry, jealous, dizzy over love? And it’s this examination of a very human emotion that is lost in Handspring’s stagecraft.

Tom Morris’s production at Bristol Old Vic transfers the action to a workshop space. In Vicki Mortimer’s design the stage is surrounded by half-painted planks, tools, hanging dust-sheets. The set has the half-finished coming-into-being appearance that is the trademark of Handspring’s puppets. The cast wear loose jeans, dungarees and checked shirts.

The four human lovers – Hermia played by Akiya Henry, Demetrius played by Kyle Lima, Helena by Naomi Cranston and Lysander by Alex Felton – all have a puppet version of themselves. They each both play the role and operate their puppet self. Sometimes they direct their speech at an actor, sometimes their puppet. The result is distraction and dilution. During the one scene in which the mini-lovers are abandoned completely as the two men fight over Helena, who in turn scraps with Hermia, it feels like an exhilarating release and a pity that actors of this calibre are hampered by cumbersome – and largely unnecessary – puppets.

There are nice moments: when Hermia tells Lysander to ‘lie further off’ the two actors exchange puppets in a neat ornament on the theme of Shakespeare’s text.

Where the puppetry does work, however, is in Morris’s imagining of the fairy world. Puck is a pulsating jumble of floating workshop objects – now a dog, now a giant (although it also reminded me of the computer game character Rayman…). Peaseblossom, Cobweb and Mustardseed are at once endearing and menacing. One leans towards the audience sing-songing ‘kissy-kissy’ before its mouth snaps open to show sharpened fangs and its eyes turn red.

But Bottom is the heart of this production. His transformation is nothing short of astonishing. Miltos Yerolemou gets laughs in all the right places as we’re introduced to the band of mechanicals. But when he returns – as an ass, the audience’s laughter is disbelief, anarchy. Yerolemou is placed in a contraption which turns him almost entirely upside-down, his bare bottom (see what they did there?) in the air, two donkey ears attached to his feet. It is the most imaginative moment in the production by some way – though obviously presents some challenges to the actor as he tries to deliver his lines…

This is the not the dream Dream but there are moments which capture the vertiginous anarchy of Shakespeare’s story. There is a sense that Handspring and Morris are still experimenting and the end result might yet be an astonishingly rude, ravishingly sexy evening of revels. But it’s not there yet.

A Midsummer Night’s Drear runs at Bristol Old Vic until 4 May

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