Posts Tagged ‘ Shakespeare ’

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

Review: Richard III, Tobacco Factory Theatre, Bristol


From a public relations point of view, Richard III is very much “on trend”. It was only earlier this month that a skeleton discovered in a car park in Leicester was confirmed to be that of the 15th-century king. And thanks to Hilary Mantel’s double-Booker-winning series about the reign of Henry VIII, the UK has become a country of historians.

So the director of this Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory production of Shakespeare’s Richard III, Andrew Hilton, is wise to dress his actors in Tudor costume. It gives the production something of a Wolf Hall feel to it.

John Mackay takes on the central role, and in his hands the murderous upstart king becomes something altogether more interesting: we get the sense that he doesn’t take anything seriously. He has realised the essential pointlessness of life and has decided, therefore, to have his fun.

In the famous opening ‘Now is the winter of our discontent’ speech there’s a new cynicism. Gone is the wounded ambition: it’s replaced by a superiority which laughs at the value the world places on ‘victorious wreaths’. He is a gambling king who measures up the challenge of chatting up the woman whose husband he has killed – and likes the odds. He lists his achievements and taunts the incredulous audience with the question ‘can I do this and not get a crown?’

Between them, Hilton and Mackay squeeze every drop of comedy out of this play – and it turns out there are plenty of laughs. Mackay’s Richard is impish: he peers into a bag he’s been handed with the head of the courtier Hastings inside – ‘Good morning, Hastings!’ he trills and as he slopes off stage he makes as if to throw the bag into the audience. After seducing Anne he turns – incredulous at his success to ask ‘Was ever woman in this humour won?’. Like all the best evil characters, Mackay’s Richard is a joy to watch.

All of which rather drowns out the rest of this very strong cast. Alan Coveney is affecting as the over-trusting Hastings, Paul Currier proves a slippery Duke of Buckingham and Dorothea Myer-Bennett manages to make Anne – who marries Richard – not only sympathetic but empathetic. The women in this production are not won over by Richard, they are not dazzled by his word-wizardry, rather they are psychologically beaten in to submission, forced into a corner and made to believe he is their only way out.

But even this cast cannot disguise the fact that Shakespeare’s play may as well be a one-man show – which is both its strength and its weakness. Richard is one of Shakespeare’s most vividly painted characters, a cartoonish devil wreaking havoc on England. But to allow this character the space he needs to strut and fret, the supporting cast are reduced to Richard’s play things. Hilton has created an elegant, deftly handled production of one of Shakespeare’s more flawed plays. But this is not a stripped-down portrayal of an enigmatic king: for that you’ll need to go to Leicester.

Shakespeare’s ‘Richard III’ is at Bristol’s Tobacco Factory Theatre until 30 March

Henry IV Parts I and II, Theatre Royal, Bath: review

4 stars

At the heart of this year’s Peter Hall season in Bath sits a work that the veteran director staged at the RSC almost 50 years ago. And this production, taking place on a versatile set by Simon Higlett, has all of his hallmarks.

It is brilliantly spoken – the language takes centre-stage and every pun, witticism and tongue-twisting insult is given its moment, no matter how much semaphore is required to translate the meaning today…

Read my full review of this production of ‘Henry IV Parts I and II’ on The Independent’s website here

Theatrigirl’s debut on the (Guardian) stage (blog)

A piece wot I wrote on Prisons and playwrights appeared today on the Guardian stage blog.

prison bars

The Truth in Double Falsehood

Double Falsehood lost ShakespeareOn 9 September, 1653, a London publisher – one Humphrey Moseley – entered a batch of plays in the Stationers’ Register including ‘The History of Cardenio by Mr Fletcher and Shakespeare’. But no more is heard of such a play until, in 1727, a version of the story reappears under the title Double Falsehood or the Distrest Lovers.

The writer, Lewis Theobald, claimed that Double Falsehood was a ‘revised and adapted’ version of Fletcher and Shakespeare’s Cardenio – manuscripts of which he claimed to own. Unfortunately for posterity, the “original” manuscript of Cardenio was housed in the library of Covent Garden Playhouse – which burned down in 1808. All that is left of this lost Shakespeare is Theobald’s revised version – and a lot of speculation.

Last year, Arden controversially decided to include it in their Complete Works – and now the play is being performed in London at the Union Theatre, for the first time in at least 164 years.

The media fuss around the “new” Shakespeare is misleading – academics have always known about the existence of Theobald’s script. Indeed, my copy of The Oxford Shakespeare, first published in 1988, refers to the play, but dismisses it as ‘no more than an interesting curiosity’.

Union Theatre

Double Falsehood at The Union Theatre

Phil Willmott, who is directing Double Falsehood at The Union Theatre, is refreshingly realistic about the play: “I would never claim that Double Falsehood is a masterpiece but it does tell us things about Shakespeare’s psyche and when we see it, we can see echoes of other famous works.”

The central character of the play is Violante, who is raped by Henriquez early on. Henriquez then falls in love with another woman – Leonara – who also happens to be loved by his friend, Julio. Violante pursues Henriquez, determined that he should marry her, after having raped her. It is, as Willmott acknowledges, a plot which sits awkwardly with modern sensibilities: “Central to it there’s a very unpalatable premise that a woman is raped and she spends the rest of the play pursuing the rapist because she’s going to force him to marry her. When you read it on the page you think ‘this is outrageous!’ And in previews some people have been shocked by this but in actual fact when you break it down, what choice does she have? She could start a woman’s refuge, or marry a shepherd, but actually her best prospect is to pursue this aristocrat.”


As You Like It

One strong argument for unearthing this largely overlooked work is the light it may shed on other plays by Shakespeare: it shares plot points with, for example, King Lear – a good son and a bad son – and As You Like It – girls dressing as boys and escaping to the wilderness.

But the language – ay there’s the rub. If Shakespeare did have a hand in this play, he wasn’t at his best as a writer: “It’s very evocative, it’s very dramatic,” but Phil readily admits “there are no soaring, poetic flights of imagery. The lark doesn’t ascend to Heaven’s gates at any point.” But he thinks Shakespeare’s fingerprint is evident in another aspect of the text: “there’s terrific psychological insight in the language – more so than you would get from your standard Jacobean tragedy or comedy. [The language] does always beautifully capture the thought patterns and the processes and the journeys that the characters are going on.”

This is all academic. As the production’s designer, Javier de Frutos, rightly points out – the play needs to be put on if the question of authenticity is ever to be settled. “You cannot open the debate of whether or not it is Shakespeare by leaving it on the page – a play doesn’t exist on the page. As creators, we have the obligation to put it on the stage for the debate to open. It’s worth putting the play on just for that.”

Willmott has directed, he tells me, 11 or 12 other Shakespeare plays – so how does this work compare? “It feels like doing a piece of new writing,” answers Willmott immediately, “because nothing comes with any clutter or baggage, there’s no expectations so you approach the script as you would a piece of new writing and that feels very fresh and exciting.”

Both Willmott and de Frutos agree that directing Shakespeare can be terrifying: de Frutos admits he felt “paralysed” in the past by what he calls the “Shakespeare police”. Everyone has an opinion about the established Shakespeare plays, whereas with Double Falsehood, they were given the theatrical equivalent of a blank page. The pressure was off to find a new angle, to give it a new setting: there was no need for what Willmott calls a “gimmick”. “I think the key thing is that we were determined there would just be the simplicity of the language and the storytelling, and that we wouldn’t butter it up with our take on it. People who are coming to see it want to experience the play, they don’t want to see Phil Willmott and Javier de Frutos’ version of the play.”

So it’s up to you. Whatever the hype says, Willmott and de Frutos have not set Double Falsehood up as a lost masterpiece of the bard. Part of the fun of the project – both for them and for us – is that the audience can create their own theories as to the authorship. With this production, they are just facilitating and adding their twopennyworth to an ongoing debate. As Phil explains: “Academics have had their fun and now we’re standing [the play] up and seeing how it works as a piece of theatre.”


Double Falsehood is on at The Union Theatre until 12 February.

This article first appeared on

Julius Caesar, RSC season at The Roundhouse: review

The Roundhouse, Camden
Director: Lucy Bailey

It is indicative of the mood of Lucy Bailey’s production of Julius Caesar that Mark Anthony’s much quote ‘Friends, Romans, Countrymen – lend me your ears’ is less dignified oration and more impatient call for the crowd to “Shut the f*** up!”

From the very first moments of this staging, the stage is soaked in blood: Bailey prefaces the play with a brutal fight between mythical founder of Rome, Romulus and his brother, Remus. Raised by wolves, these two are savage, bestial and without remorse – but next to Shakespeare’s characters, they look like fluffy puppies.Founders of Rome

Bailey creates a Rome of Dionysian energy and passion – founded by a mythical fratricide, the City continues to drip with blood. The company of the RSC work as if one organism and the acting is complemented and completed by Fotini Dimou’s splendid costume design, William Dudley’s versatile set and Django Bates’ cacophonous music. In place of a traditional architectural set, Dudley and Bailey opt for video and shimmering images projected on to a long narrow top portion of the back wall and sail-like screens on which they project images of the crowd, so central to the story of Julius Caesar.

But all this would be nothing without the acting. As Coleridge didn’t quite say, this may be Caesar’s tragedy, but it’s Brutus’ play. Sam Troughton as the inwardly-tormented freedom fighter is a powerhouse of a man: when Mark Anthony proclaims ‘This was a man’, you know what he means. Troughton is also conflicted and earnest, expressing each emotion through an extreme physicality. Most importantly, he is likeable and the audience feels his anguish.

Co-conspirator Cassius is a more difficult character to warm to but John Mackay’s comes close. He is thoughtful and quick, honest and eager: a tall, sinewy man whose wit coaxes the conspirators to action. And Caesar is not a villain either. Greg Hicks in the eponymous role struts across the stage, looking as if he’s still growing into his regal robes. At the mention of a crown he snaps his fingers and clicks his tongue – but whether that is out of frustration or anticipation is unclear. If there is a villain in Bailey’s production, it is Casca – another of the conspirators – Oliver Ryan in the role positively relishes the blood-shed and looks eager to continue after the assassination.

It is Darrell D’Silva as Mark Anthony, however, who stands out for his virtuoso performance of the famous speech over Caesar’s body (‘but Brutus is an honourable man…’) He is the most animal of the senators, to whom the violent world of Rome is everyday: when he enters after a battle, swinging a severed head, he looks like he’s had nothing worse than a bad day at the office.

Testosterone and adrenaline drive this play – even the dead bodies on stage continue to quiver long after their demise, as if the energy of the production cannot be contained. Fight director Philip D’Orléans does a brilliant job of creating the lengthy battle scenes without allowing the momentum to falter.

Bailey’s production is simple – the setting is Ancient Rome, as intended, anachronisms are left in, and there is plenty of realistic gore. She lets the play stand on its own merit: her direction simply allows the richness of Shakespeare’s text to thrive.

This review originally appeared on

Theatrigirl’s Weekly Highlights

As the winter chill begins to set in, here’s Theatrigirl’s list of reasons to be cheerful this week. There’s Hamlet at the National, whimsical fun at Upstairs at the Gatehouse and Anthony Sher in Arthur Miller at the Tricycle. Brave the cold and wrap yourself up in a good play…

  • Or You Could Kiss Me, Cottesloe Theatre, National TheatreInteresting new puppetry piece by Neil Bartlett about how to say goodbye: an “intimate history of two very private lives.” The puppets have been created by the same team as War Horse.

    Previews from 28 Sept

  • Burn My Heart, New Diorama TheatreAdapted from Beverley Naidoo’s novel of the same name, this production, by theatre companies Trestle and Blindeye, is part of Black History Month. The play is set during the Mau Mau uprising in 1950s Kenya and focuses on the destruction wrought by the conflict on the lives of two young boys.

    28 Sept-2 Oct

  • Hamlet, Olivier Theatre, National TheatreHamlet is this season’s “must-have” – the Crucible is also staging a production at the moment and the National have commissioned a “prequel” to Shakespeare’s work (The Prince of Denmark) which will open next week. Rory Kinnear takes the title role in Nicholas Hytner’s production in the NT’s Olivier Theatre.

    Previews from 30 Sept

  • Broken Glass, The TricycleAnthony Sher stars in Arthur Miller’s tale of guilt, love and tragedy in 1930s Brooklyn.

    Previews from 30 Sept

  • The Drowsy Chaperone, Upstairs at the GatehouseA musical within a musical. A self-conscious parody. An anonymous narrator introduces and guides the audience through his favourite musical: The Drowsy Chaperone from 1928. Frivolous frippery.

    23 Sept-31 Oct

  • What’s On Highlights 20-26 September

    Just a quick one today. My ones to watch this week are:

    Pope’s Wedding at the Cock Tavern Theatre

    The second play in the Cock’s Edward Bond Season. Disappointingly, the title is not a literal reference to the events of the play…

    19 Sep-2 Oct

    The Makropulos Case, by Leoš Janáček, Coliseum
    ENO’s first revival of  Christopher Alden’s staging of the Czech composer’s penultimate opera “which tells the story of the enigmatic Emilia Marty, the cold-hearted diva whose uncanny knowledge of past events provides the key to resolving a 100-year-old lawsuit but also unlocks ancient mysteries that call into question mankind’s obsessive quest for eternal life.”

    20 Sep-5 Oct
    Pocket Dream, Hampstead Theatre
    Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream for young audiences. At only 60 minutes long, Pocket Dream promises “a dynamic, contemporary and physical introduction to Shakespeare”. Oh my!

    21-24 Sep

    Niobe, Regina di Tebe, by Agostino Steffani, ROH
    Although well-regarded in his own time, Steffani (1654–1728) is little known today. This opera takes the ancient Greek story of Niobe, who angered the gods and so was punished with the of all her children. Cheery stuff – and unmissable for any early opera enthusiasts (…anyone??). And it claims there are £5 tickets available.

    23 Sep-3 Oct

    In Praise of Comfy Seating

    Whether it’s a production of Into the Woods in Regent’s Park, Shakespeare in a disused church or Greek tragedy in a military training base, site-specific theatre is all the rage. But does this fashion for quirky and unusual spaces add anything to our experience as an audience? Anything, that is, apart from numb behinds, insect bites and runny noses.

    In a recent review of a site-specific production of Aeschylus’ The Persians high up in the Brecon Beacons, Michael Billington wrote: “The combination of the story and the setting, with the sun slowly disappearing over the hills, is overwhelming”. This most ancient of dramatic texts managed to live up to this most ancient of landscapes.

    Similarly, the production of Into the Woods currently showing at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre has been well received by the critics: Sondheim’s musical chimes with and is complemented by the wooded surroundings. But in my experience, these success stories are exceptions to the rule.

    At its best, site-specific theatre manages to feed on its surroundings and the piece is made more relevant, more poignant and bigger, in every sense of the word, as a result. At its worst it can be self-indulgent, wearisome and decidedly irritating. There is nothing worse than watching a dull production, shivering on uncomfortable seating – and knowing that the performers are having a great time.

    Hubris seems to be the heart of the problem when site-specific theatre falls flat – which it often does. As far as outdoor theatre is concerned, soaring peaks and limitless horizons make humans look – and feel – very small. And it is a rare play indeed which can convince an audience of the relevance of its story against such a backdrop.

    There is something about the vastness of nature – the drama inherent in a panoramic view – which tempts theatre practitioners. The Minack theatre in Cornwall, although purpose built, can be placed under the “site-specific” heading as it also attempts to tap into the power of landscape. And the seats are awful. Although I’ve seen a number of plays there, rarely can the actors compete with the backdrop. On one memorable occasion, a basking shark sauntered past and the audience – of Peter Pan, I think it was – rather lost interest in the action on stage.

    Site-specific indoor theatre – such as ENO and Punchdrunk’s recent Duchess of Malfi, or the RSC’s histories series in Westminster abbey – may not have to deal with the insect bites, but these plays still have to work hard to justify the use of the space. Non-traditional venues encourage an audience to question a play’s purpose and worth more readily than traditional spaces – which, in the end has to be an argument in favour.

    Truly great site-specific theatre can affect an audience in ways a production in a purpose-built venue never can. Productions in unusual venues come under greater scrutiny and demand more mental (and occasionally physical) involvement in the piece – audiences, used to drama tucked safely behind the footlights, become engaged in a more meaningful way. The stakes, in other words, are higher. When site-specific theatre is good, it’s very very good: but when it’s bad, it’s yawningly, bum-numbingly, pretentiously horrid.