Posts tagged ‘shakespeare’

28 July, 2011


I’ve been experimenting with Storify, one of several startups catering to journalists who want to construct stories in a modern, relevant way. (Storyful, which I may try soon, is another.)

The basic concept is that you pull public-domain content from a variety of social streams – Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, and others – and arrange it all into a coherent, chronological, columnar narrative. The intended outcome is to allow individuals to make some sense out of the barrages of citizen journalism that issue from newsworthy events. The journalist, then, if that title retains any relevance, is a filter, ordering chaos to make it digestible for anyone who has the yen to understand, but not the time or knowledge to filter for themselves.

Contrary to the claims on Storify’s site, Storified streams can’t yet be embedded into WordPress blog posts. If and when that functionality becomes available, I’ll make use of it. In the meantime, I’ll just link you out to the stories in their native habitat, on Storify’s website.

My first foray was to chronicle The Fall of the News of the World, since it was all the internet was talking about at the time, and I knew I’d have plenty of content to draw on.

Then I tried applying Storify to arts coverage and reviewing, by livetweeting my reaction to Five Truths at the Victoria and Albert Museum and saving the tweets for posterity as a Storify stream.

Let me know what you think (about Storify/storyful in general, or my stories in particular). I’ll post more as I continue experimenting.

11 July, 2010

The Comedy of Errors

Sophie  Roberts and Daniel Weyman in The Comedy of Errors

Sophie Roberts and Daniel Weyman in The Comedy of Errors. Image courtesy of The Corner Shop

Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, 24 June – 31 July 2010

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

The first and final scenes of this open-air Comedy of Errors feel dashed off, as if director Philip Franks couldn’t be bothered to do much with them. This isn’t as big a problem as it might be in a different play: The Comedy of Errors is mostly middle.

Franks appears to have judged, by no means incorrectly, that the sob story Egeon (Christopher Ravenscroft) feeds the Duke (Alister Cameron) in scene one isn’t nearly as important to the audience as it is to Egeon (who is, after all, telling it in order to secure himself a stay of execution). Adoptions and shipwrecks don’t concern us. All we need to know is that two sets of estranged identical twins are about to be set loose in Ephesus and hilarity, as they say, will ensue.

So yes, the opening scene is interminable, there’s little evidence of “grief unspeakable” in Ravenscroft’s performance and as such his climactic reunion with his wife and sons is emotionally flat. But as soon as Egeon yields the stage to the twin Antipholi and Dromios, Franks and the audience alike sit up and start paying attention.

The production has a fantastic sense of fun, embracing the absurdity of the play’s premise and embellishing it with brand new absurdities, like unexpected song and dance numbers and Scooby-Doo-style pursuits with mobs racing past people hidden in convenient wicker baskets.

The contrasting relationships of the Antipholi (Daniels Weyman and Llewelyn-Williams) to their respective Dromios (Joseph Kloska and Josh Cohen) are convincingly fleshed out: Ephesian Dromio (Cohen) is beaten and put-upon by his wealthy master (Llewelyn-Williams) but they always make up in the end, while the less affluent Syracusan pair are on a more equal footing.

This means that when the Antipholi unwittingly swap Dromios or vice versa, as they inevitably must, there’s an extra level of humour to enjoy. One Dromio leaves in search of bail money for Antipholus and another returns with a bit of rope – that’s worth a giggle. But when Ephesian Antipholus, used to getting his own way, is faced with a Dromio who isn’t used to taking orders, hilarity ensues.

Perhaps if Franks had paid as much attention to Egeon’s characterisation as to the twins’, the production could have gained yet another layer, this time of poignancy. But this production gets belly laughs from a capacity crowd using Elizabethan dialogue, so I say, who needs depth when hilarity is ensuing?

Written by William Shakespeare

Crew includes Philip Franks (director), Gideon Davey (designer), Quinny Sacks (movement director), Paul Frankish (musical director)

Cast includes Alister Cameron (Duke), Josh Cohen (Dromio of Ephesus), Joseph Kloska (Dromio of Syracuse), Daniel Llewelyn-Williams (Antipholus of Ephesus), Christopher Ravenscroft (Egeon), Daniel Weyman (Antipholus of Syracuse)

Need a second opinion?

6 June, 2010

Romeo and Juliet

Chris Gee and Olivia Vinall in Romeo and Juliet

Chris Gee and Olivia Vinall in Romeo and Juliet. Image courtesy of Mobius

Leicester Square Theatre, 1 June – 11 July 2009

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

Ruby in the Dust have created a nearly perfect Romeo and Juliet for the modern attention span. They’ve had to kill a few Bardic darlings to get there – “But soft, what light through yonder window breaks” is lost to the edit, as are many supporting characters – but what remains is for the most part pacey, rhythmic and engrossing. The running time? Two brisk hours, including interval. Not bad for the most epic of romances.

So why only nearly perfect? It might not seem possible for a Romeo and Juliet, but some scenes are actually too brisk. Juliet’s (Olivia Vinall’s) mask is hardly off her face before Romeo (Daniel Finn) plummets into enraptured soliloquy; without even a moment’s pause for his feelings to blossom, they can’t help but seem unreal.

Likewise, Mercutio is dragged offstage and into his grave almost before he’s finished wishing plagues on houses. It’s a hurried and anticlimactic end to Christos Lawton’s performance, which is louche, charismatic and very watchable despite his tendency to gabble through pursed lips like a hastily dubbed-over black and white movie star.

The lovers are, appropriately enough, most believable and enjoyable when love is in the driving seat. Their impetuous first act trysts are Catherine-wheel whirls of flirtatious double-talk, spitting passion in all directions – but Vinall in particular responds to the second act’s mounting tragedies with typical, and therefore unconvincing, melodrama. The wider her eyes, the shakier her voice, the more lines she directs, palm upraised, to the middle distance, the less attention she commands.

But the vast majority of scenes are bite-sized in length; Jessica Hrabowsky’s fight choreography is way above the off-West End average despite the small space; and notwithstanding some bendy rubber knives and an anachronistic Maglite the production is appealingly visually coherent.

P.S. Apparently the production is set in Mussolini’s Italy. As a design decision it’s inescapable; silver skulls and eagles adorn Christopher Hone’s monochrome design, the black-shirted Capulets perform Fascist salutes at every opportunity and Romeo wears a Star of David pendant. But all this is little more than window dressing.

It’s still his Montague surname, and not his Jewish race, that Romeo holds responsible for his tribulations; Juliet’s domineering father (Chris Gee), not Mussolini’s Race Laws, is the main obstacle to her matrimonial bliss. This is an admirably efficient Romeo and Juliet; but it can’t pretend it has anything whatsoever to say about Fascism.

Written by William Shakespeare

Crew includes Linnie Reedman (director), Joe Evans (composer), Christopher Hone (designer) and Jessica Hrabowsky (fight director)

Cast includes Martin Dickinson (Tybalt), Daniel Finn (Romeo), Chris Gee (Capulet), David Laughton (Benvolio/Laurence), Christos Lawton (Mercutio), Dan Moore (Paris), Olivia Vinall (Juliet) and Imogen Vinden-North (Nurse)

Need a second opinion?

20 August, 2009

Big Mac

Sweet ECA, 17 – 23 August 2009

Reviewed for the Oxford Times

Updating Macbeth to modern-day Hollywood is a concept with promise. Celebrity is the new royalty, and defamation in the media is as good as death. Big Mac – developed and presented by pupils of two Oxford schools – delivers on very little of this promise.

The Macbeth figure in this adaptation is Jack Marlin (Charlie Littlewood), an up-and-coming actor overshadowed by his Duncan, Wellesian auteur Dan Cassel (Simon Devenport). Lady Macbeth is Jack’s unfulfilled girlfriend Kitty Parker (Maddy Maxwell), whose lust for fame and fortune is fed not by witches but by three clairvoyant casting agents (and this is where the believability of the update starts to corrode).

With the right execution, updating a Shakespeare play can refresh over-familiar material and demonstrate how its themes apply to modern life. But in this case the familiarity of the source simply makes Big Mac predictable.

Though at one point it seems the play might surprise us, by replacing Cassel’s anticipated murder with the shredding of his reputation by a media lynch mob, a scenario is soon engineered in which he can also be physically slain – because Cassel is Duncan, and Duncan must die.

The script is a litany of corny noir cliché, from “Don’t play dumb with me!” to “You’re making a big mistake!” Played for laughs, this could boldly satirise boilerplate Hollywood screenwriting, but played in earnest, it serves instead to venerate it.

Similarly, the staging – in which every prop is conspicuously labelled and a large pasteboard sign prompts applause – highlights the unreality both of theatre and of Hollywood, but also discourages the audience from engaging with the action.

Yes, the company are all still in their teens; yes, perhaps it is harsh to judge them by the same yardstick as professional productions at the Fringe. But their youth means they have all the time in the world to improve. Their concept is already sound; their execution needs work, that’s all.

Written by the company after William Shakespeare

Crew includes Atri Banerjee, Adam Smith and Jacob Trefethen (directors)

Cast includes Hana Clements (Marguerite), Simon Devenport (Dan Cassel), George Ferguson (Luke Duffy), Tom Gidman (Grain), Charlie Littlewood (Jack Marlin), Maddy Maxwell (Kitty Parker) and Lucy Prendergast (Vitelli)

Need a second opinion?

18 August, 2009

A Midsummer Night’s Dream ***

McEwan Hall, 14 – 23 August 2009

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

Throughout this visually stunning Dream there’s a nagging sense that the Beijing Film Academy are trying to put one over on us; to distract us with twinkly lights and tumbly fights in the hope that we won’t notice the many holes in their adaptation.

Shakespeare’s faeries are downgraded to adolescent online gamers, his human characters to programmed game sprites and his Athens to a multiplayer online fantasy world à la World of Warcraft. The apparent logic behind this is that we mortals are about as significant to the faeries as, say, The Sims are to us. And what’s the first thing you do when you get bored playing The Sims? Depending on your personality, either set them on fire – or meddle in their love lives.

So far, so logical, and further ponderings on the subject are shoved swiftly to the back burner by an onslaught of visual artistry. Ting Luo’s costumes are elaborate and otherworldly; a catalogue of ghostly pale pleats and ruffles, rendered only faintly ridiculous by the addition of LED rope lights. Multimedia designer Dawei Lu’s bespoke animated projections are astounding, a constantly growing, changing backdrop that takes account and advantage of McEwan Hall’s staggering décor and architecture. The action, too, has a distinctly BFA flavour, with plenty of enjoyably daft martial-arts-flick “for this insult you must die!” moments.

It’s spectacular enough to render the language barrier a non-issue, though Oberon/Ola (Nan Zhang) does often switch into English to deliver exposition of the videogame plot mechanics. It’s in these explanatory scenes with Puck/Perquie (Jiang Shimeng), now a hacker, that it becomes briefly apparent that things don’t really make sense. It’s never properly explained, for example, why the Love-in-Idleness virus, which alters the emotional parameters of the in-game AI, also affects Titania/Titata (Yabin Wang), a human player.

Within the boundaries of the auditorium, this is as comic and transporting as every good Dream should be. But once you’re out the door, thinking it over without the distraction of the production itself, it begins to look more like highly polished, sparkly nonsense.

Written by Jinsong Wang after William Shakespeare

Crew includes Jinsong Wang (director, planner and script adaptation), Dawei Lu (multimedia designer) and Ting Luo (costume designer)

Cast includes Weihang Rui (Lonson), Jiang Shimeng (Perquie), Tao Wang (Dalytely), Yabin Wang (Titata), Yiru Wang (Heyleese), Qi Yang (Ayamaya) and Nan Zhang (Ola)

Need a second opinion?

15 August, 2009

Ophelia (drowning) ****

Sweet Grassmarket Swimming Pool, 5 – 18 August 2009

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

The clear, rippling water – jets turned up high for maximum eddying – is the source of some striking, moving visuals in this collage of Hamlet, pop lyrics and Deborah Levy’s Pushing the Prince into Denmark. The trappings of marriage – white veil and bouquet – take on a gloss of melancholy unreality when swirling, ghostlike, in the current or lying on the bottom, visible only through a shifting, distorting lens.

Helen Morton’s Ophelia is equally arresting. Her shoulders tense and rounded, her voice as husky and tremulous as if something were tightening around her chest, she avoids eye contact as Gertrude (Rose Walker) attempts, through allegory and outright pleading, to persuade her to let go her hang-ups and move on.

Though it dominates the space, the pool is more set piece than stage, used more as a symbolic watery grave for cast-off props than for swimming in. Other than at the very beginning and end of the play, the action is mostly limited to repetitive circuits of the poolside, as Ophelia and Gertrude debate in figurative and literal circles. Pete Wheller as the Prince, the most frequently submerged character, puts altogether too much effort into both his vindictive glowering and his enunciation, in a contrast to Morton’s more subtly studied performance. Fortunately, the Prince spends most of the play in the corner cosseting his mocking-bird Lover (Serafina Kiszko), allowing the far superior Morton the exposure she deserves.

Written by Daniel Marchese Robinson and Daniel Pitt after Deborah Levy after William Shakespeare

Crew includes Daniel Marchese Robinson and Daniel Pitt (directors/designers)

Cast includes Serafina Kiszko (The Lover), Helen Morton (Ophelia), Rose Walker (Gertrude) and Pete Wheller (The Prince)

Need a second opinion?

25 June, 2009

Arts Futurism – the international live theatre exchange

Written for The Collective Review, 25 June 2009

At 7:00pm tonight, Helen Mirren will perform as Phèdre on the National Theatre’s Lyttelton stage.  Nicholas Hytner’s production of Jean Racine’s play has been running for two weeks already, but tonight’s performance is different.  Tonight’s performance will be broadcast live to over 250 cinema screens in 19 countries, in an initiative the theatre calls NT Live.

If this is news to you then you’re probably too late to experience Phèdre on the big screen (though it’s still on at the National until 27 August, if you can get there).  You can, however, still catch Marianne Elliott’s All’s Well That Ends Well, which will be broadcast on 1 October.  By that time, more cinemas may well have signed up to participate.

In the meantime, live theatre is coming to the small screen in the form of Sky Arts Theatre Live! Sky Arts will broadcast live performances of six new plays by well-known playwrights, screenwriters and literary authors direct to your living room, in high definition, beginning in July.

So what will audiences in the cinemas or at home gain or lose compared to those sitting in the theatres themselves?

They may lose a little of theatre’s immediacy:  that feeling cinema and television can’t reproduce, of being in the same room as the characters and the action.  In exchange, depending on how the camera work is handled, they may gain something cinema and television can do but theatre can’t:  close-ups.

Crucially, because the broadcast is live and not recorded, they won’t lose the unique, momentary nature of the performance; the knowledge that each iteration of the play is fleeting, and that no audience will have the exact same experience of the play ever again.  Unless, that is, Theatre Live! becomes available on Skyplayer.

But the most important thing NT Live’s cinemagoing audience will gain is the opportunity to see a play at the National without physically making the trip to the theatre.  There are participating screens in Australia and New Zealand, whose patrons would ordinarily have to travel halfway around the world to see Hytner’s Phèdre.

It might seem like hubris on the National’s part; Australia and New Zealand have perfectly good quality theatres of their own, after all.  But what if those theatres – and theatres in other participating countries – were to take inspiration from NT Live (or steal the idea, depending on whether your glass is half full or half empty) and arrange to broadcast some of their own productions into cinemas?

Your local cinema screen could become the National Theatre, Melbourne one night, the National Theatre of Norway the next, the Kenya National Theatre the next.  You could sample live performance from around the world without incurring prohibitive travel expenses.  You could experience ideas and emotions that British theatre hasn’t even realised it’s incapable of expressing.  We could all grow and become better people.  Will we?  Probably not.  But if we do, I’m taking all the credit.

11 June, 2009

Updating the Bard whether he likes it or not

Written for The Collective Review, 11 June 2009

In the past month both Theatre Delicatessen and Love&Madness have set Shakespearean plays in 1960s gangland London.  Updating Shakespeare’s plays to a modern setting inevitably renders the language anachronistic and some lines nonsensical, but it’s such common practice that audiences tend to forgive even the most grievous inconsistencies.

Being a national watchword for timeless and universal quality, Shakespeare is a reliable fallback for any British theatre company.  Audiences know what they’re getting with the Bard, and that makes marketing a production a good deal easier than with new writing.  Plus, the ensemble get to show off how skilfully they can wrap their lips around an iambic pentameter.

But precisely because his canon is so well-known, it’s difficult to make a Shakespeare play stand out in the listings, or to differentiate your production from the many previous productions of the same play.  Besides an injection of star power, probably the most popular way of refreshing the material is to update the setting.

But – again thanks to the Bard’s reputation – the text is sacred.  Scenes can be cut but the verse structure and Elizabethan argot must remain intact.  Hence any attempt to relocate the play to a real historical period is inevitably limited to aesthetic elements:  set, costume and accents.

If the company’s creative team apply enough thought to the matter it’s perfectly possible to overcome that limitation, so this isn’t to say that Shakespeare should only ever be set in the 16th century.  Too often, though, directors take the audience’s familiarity with the play as an excuse to dress the ensemble in suits or Gulf War fatigues with no consideration of internal consistency.

So Love&Madness’s Macbeth, which begins promisingly by transforming the Scottish village of Glamis into The Glamis Arms, a London pub run by the Macbeths, trips nigglingly over its own transplanted geography once Malcolm and Donalbain start talking about fleeing to England (aren’t they already there? are Scotland and England London boroughs in this production?).

Theatre Delicatessen’s even more troubled version of The Winter’s Tale requires the audience to believe that an East End crime boss grew up alongside the king of a small Latin American country – I think.  While the company’s updated Bohemia has a definite Latin flavour, it’s unclear whether it’s a country or a small village, and the position of “King” Polixines within the production’s internal logic is even less clearly defined.

Even Michael Grandage’s Hamlet, which opened on 29 May, has come under fire from BBC Radio 4’s Front Row for a lack of internal consistency.  Grandage’s cast perform in modern dress, and Adam Cork’s sound design includes car horns, but Hamlet (Jude Law) still sends letters rather than texts or emails; the production uses only those elements of modern life that suit Grandage.

I’m being deliberately nitpicky, of course, but so should you be.  Shakespeare’s exalted position within the national consciousness should not be an excuse for directors to forsake internal consistency, one of the most basic tenets of storytelling.  To overcome the shortcomings of an update by relying on the audience’s foreknowledge of the text is to negate the very purpose of the update, which should be to allow people to experience the play as if for the first time.

31 May, 2009

All’s Well That End Well

National Theatre, 28 May – 30 September 2009

Reviewed for the London Theatre Blog

All’s Well That Ends Well is supposedly one of Shakespeare’s problem plays, though you wouldn’t guess that from Marianne Elliott’s production at the National (the third of this year’s Travelex £10 ticket plays).

Apparently, the play’s usual flaw is Bertram, the male romantic lead. When the King of France forcibly weds him to Helena, in return for her curing him of a fistula, Bertram’s reaction is one of extreme distaste. He proceeds to abhor his wife for the rest of the play, joining the army to avoid her and promising to consummate his vows only if she fulfils certain nigh-impossible conditions. Then, when she duly fulfils those conditions, he turns on a sixpence in the interests of a happy ending.

Here, Bertram (George Rainsford) is a snooty child of privilege whose rejection of Helena is a reactionary response to their class difference, and his sudden turnaround is the logical result of his confidant Parolles’ exposure as a coward and fraudster, which shows Bertram that his judgement of character isn’t as sound as he thinks it is. It’s then perfectly natural for him, upon his reunion with the wife he thought dead of heartbreak, to be grateful for a second chance with a woman whose praises are sung by every other character, but whom he foolishly dismissed without a second look.

More importantly, Bertram’s change of heart is a victory for Helena, who takes the traditionally male role of dogged suitor and stubbornly refuses to take “no” for an answer. Michelle Terry, who deftly handled multiple roles in season opener England People Very Nice, here deftly embodies Helena’s strongest aspects – her determination and her good-humoured mischievous streak. Perhaps fittingly, her performance is weakest when showing Helena’s weakness; the monologues mourning her unrequited love are drastically overplayed.

The only ‘problem’ aspect remaining is what Terry’s independent Helena sees in Rainsford’s spoiled Bertram in the first place.

None of which is to say that this is a flawless production. The stylised silent vignettes Elliott uses to cover scene changes seem pasted in, at odds with the dark gravity of Rae Smith’s imposing, tumbledown set; and Helena’s ‘resurrection’ is greeted with saccharine streams of golden light and a rain of sparkly rose petals. All that’s missing is a choir of angels.

Perhaps under other circumstances having ’solved’ All’s Well would be enough of an achievement, but this is the National we’re talking about; it’s perfectly justifiable to demand more.

Written by William Shakespeare

Crew includes Marianne Elliott (director) and Rae Smith (designer)

Cast includes Oliver Ford Davies (King of France), Clare Higgins (The Countess of Rossillion), Conleth Hill (Parolles), George Rainsford (Bertram) and Michelle Terry (Helena)

Need a second opinion?

24 May, 2009


Riverside Studios, 22 May – 26 July 2009

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

Considering it’s part of Riverside Studios’ Madness season, and staged by a company called Love&Madness, the exploration of madness in this Macbeth is surprisingly superficial.

Lady Macbeth’s guilt-crazed sleepwalking scene (“Out, damned spot”) is stutteringly paced and almost comically overplayed, full of wailing and collapsing and unjustified emotional U-turns as shorthand for a fragmented psyche. Jody Watson is more enjoyable as an earlier, saner Lady Macbeth whose influence on her husband’s decision making is here interpreted as leading him around by his johnson.

Dan Mullane delivers most of Macduff’s more anguished lines to the floor, dissipating his sorrow and rage at the murder of his family like earthed lightning and draining his supposedly wracked body of tension.

And Macbeth himself (Will Beer) hardly seems mad at all, taking visions and prophecies in his stride and using the news that he can’t be killed as the basis for his battleplans. The closest Beer comes to classical onstage madness is his reaction to Duncan’s murder – an event which, unlike the supernatural stuff he simply accepts, is completely under his control.

For that reason, Will Beer’s is the most believable portrayal of madness in the production.

We know, in this day and age, that what we once called ‘madness’ boils down to a difference in perception. This Macbeth’s strength is trusting in his perception of things which others – like his wife – simply deny as impossible. Lady Macbeth kills herself because she’s unable to reconcile her perception of reality with the events influencing it. Macbeth sensibly accepts the supernatural, and is defeated only because he fails to spot the loophole.

Central to this production’s very modern take on Macbeth’s madness is the defanging of the witches, here portrayed as singularly unthreatening minstrel-cum-fortune-tellers who play their rhyming couplets as jolly jigs for guitar and violin. The effect – other than to demonstrate that First Witch Arran Glass can’t sing – is to downplay the witches’ influence and place responsibility for the coming murder and tyranny solely on Macbeth himself.

The updated setting – a gangland East End boozer in the 60s – works about as well as is possible with the text intact, which is to say the parts that don’t make sense (are Scotland, England and Ireland now London boroughs?) are at least not distracting.

Iarla McGowan’s Banquo is a first act highlight. Soft-spoken and thoughtful, he threatens Macbeth because he’s always thinking, unlike his fellow men, who prefer to act.

Despite a few praiseworthy performances and interpretations, this isn’t by any means a groundbreaking Macbeth – but credit to Love&Madness for staging a play full of madness in a season about madness and (mostly) not overplaying the madness.

Written by William Shakespeare

Crew includes Neil Sheppeck (director), Nicky Bunch (set and costume design) and Paul Green (lighting design)

Cast includes Will Beer (Macbeth), Arran Glass (First Witch), Iarla MacGowan (Banquo) and Jody Watson (Lady Macbeth)