Review: Cymbeline

Written for The Stage

In producing a double bill of Shakespeare’s least performed plays, Pericles and Cymbeline, Pistachio Choice has set itself a tough task. It is one, with the latter at least, that it has not managed to carry off. Antonio Ferrara’s production, while boasting some passionate performances, suffers from a lack of decisive direction to coax Shakespeare’s rambling romance into watchable shape.

Ostensibly the story of a triumphant underdog this tale of warring Britons lacks any of Henry V’s bombast or celebratory zeal. Instead we get caught up in a tale of mistaken betrayal that once more sees a woman’s reputation abused and her body treated as a trophy to be owned and obtained.

While the traverse stage opens up the Drayton Arms space, the unimaginative set adds little to this ancient history piece. Roles are swapped continuously within this cast of five with the Roman and British tribes discernible via northern accents and occasional hat exchanges in a pragmatic if humdrum fashion.

A forthright cast battle on through this quotidian experience. Tim Wyatt’s rich delivery is a pleasure to listen too, while Caitlin Thorburn gives a dynamic and touching performance as the put-upon Imogen. Thorburn and Wyatt inject real feeling into their turns, bringing some much needed vibrancy to this commonplace Cymbeline.

Runs until 30th March. For more information go here.

Edinburgh review: Othello – The Remix

Written for The Stage

After blowing up a storm at Globe to Globe, the Q Brothers bring Othello – The Remix to Edinburgh. Elizabethan iambic pentameter is swapped for 4/4 rap beats in a ridiculously enjoyable remix.

MC Othello has risen through the ranks of the music industry to become the man with the biggest medallions and most expensive cars. But disgruntled crew member Iago is waiting in the wings with malicious intent.

Written and conceived by the superb Q Brothers, Othello – The Remix is nonetheless a joyous piece of ensemble work. From Jackson Doran’s adorable pop prince Cassio to Postell Pringle’s kingpin Othello via Gregory Qaiyum’s dastardly Iago and Jeffrey Qaiyum’s hilarious Bianca, we are offered a smorgasbord of downtown delights.

The Q Brothers are masters of comedy but they also nail the sinister side of a world as obsessed with macho pride as Shakespeare’s was. In making Desdemona a bodiless angel – whose vocals soar through the earthy rhythms below – from the start they highlight her powerlessness in this male-led, ego-fuelled industry.

Contemporary versions of Shakespeare often miss the point, but with this hip hop version of Othello, full of greed, rap rivalries and jealousy, the Q Brothers have nailed it.

For more information on the company go here.

Review: Propeller’s The Winter’s Tale

What country friends is this? Photo: Manual Harlan

For the current season Propeller have created a pretty much pitch perfect Henry V but on this evidence it seems The Winter’s Tale is one play which Hall’s all-male company cannot conquer.

Perhaps more so than any of his plays, Shakespeare’s tragi-comedy explores the relationship between men and women and, more poetically, between the masculine and the feminine; Hall’s production doesn’t quite pull off this delicate process. Within the world of the play the importance of female endurance and faithfulness is highlighted and the idea of redemption is examined. This potent feminine strength is personified not only in Hermione’s dignified exile but in Paulina’s constant vocal protest. Redemption comes in the balanced equality of Perdita and Florizel’s love where no one holds the upper hand.

Propeller’s production fails to fully illuminate this aspect of the text. While their Henry V was as complex and layered as it was full-blooded, this is one play where the all-male company struggle to convey Shakespeare’s emotional intricacies. In this case their maleness counts against them – and although Richard Dempsey and Vince Leigh give solid performances as Hermione and Paulina respectively, theirs is not a feminine strength we see put to the test.

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Review: Propeller’s Henry V

Once more unto the breach. Photo: Manual Harlan

This Propeller production of Henry V – performed in repertoire with The Winter’s Tale – is my third Henry V in as many weeks. But this is a Henry to conquer all others. All-male theatre company Propeller are the perfect troupe to tackle this testosterone laden play and they do so with relish in a production which is as relentless as it is engaging.

As a friend commented, this is blockbuster Shakespeare. Everything about it is punchy and impressive. Even the scene changes are masterly in their  choreography, entertaining in their own right.

The piece is powered by a chorus made up of eloquent but bluntly spoken squaddies. Edward Hall’s production places the action firmly in the now, with a soundscape of war that raises hairs on the back of your neck as bullets hiss by. The strong ensemble cast switch between supporting characters just as quickly. These men are, on one hand, aggression-fuelled fighting machines and on the other, vulnerable, human, men of flesh and blood. With the connection between actor and audience at the forefront of every choice, the production offers both detailed realism and enlarged Elizabethan playing.

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Review: Rocinante! Rocinante!

Written for Time Out

Filled with vivid flights of fancy, ‘Rocinante! Rocinante!’ is an intriguing piece. Sweeping parasol oceans and miniature tin-pan solar systems make this a sophisticated visual work. But in terms of communicating a story, Panta Rei Theatre have completely lost their marbles.

You can’t fault their ambition. In this devised piece, Don Quixote de la Mancha (along with Sancho Panza, donkey and eponymous horse) meets two of Hamlet’s gravediggers in a setting which echoes the grotesque art of Hieronymus Bosch. But why have they met? And what is illuminated by their meeting? This episodic narrative is frustratingly opaque.

The cast’s intelligent handling of promenade is much more practical and we are manipulated with ease by an intuitive company whose physical work is superb. Stephanie Lewis and Tommy Scott give particularly detailed performances.Some of Don Quixote’s chivalrous integrity has bled into the heart of this strange piece. But Cervantes and Shakespeare gave their heroes flashes of sanity to contextualise their torment; there is no such clarity here.

Runs until Friday 2 March. For more information go here.

Twelfth Night @ The National

Written for http://www.fourthwallmagazine.co.uk

Review: Twelfth Night – National ***

Peter Hall celebrates his 80th birthday with a return to the theatre he used to run, so it is fitting that his Twelfth Night is a reflective affair. In fact it is so reflective if it were a record it would be turning at least 4 speeds too slow. For whilst this is an undoubtedly elegant production, you leave with the sneaking suspicion that Twelfth Night should be lighter of foot than this.

It is a visual feast however with the modern setting clashing beautifully with the strict period dress that the poised cast wear with graceful aplomb. And calm it may be but it isn’t dull, each moment is performed richly, seeped as this production is in the wealth of knowledge and experience that Hall’s ‘friends and family’ cast bring to the text.

Shakespeare enthusiast Simon Callow as Sir Toby Belch is surely the male star turn here (the female being of course a doe eyed, silken Rebecca Hall) but it is the lesser known Charles Edwards as a delightfully cheeky Sir Andrew Aguecheek who steals their mischievous scenes. Simon Paisley Day is a wonderfully wounded Malvolio whose torment reaches a genuinely disturbing climax and David Ryall makes a gently charismatic Feste, singing us out with heart rendering delicacy.

In keeping with Hall’s great age this feels a very wise production and the storytelling is faultless. It is the work of an old giant of theatrical history, performed with reverence by an estimable cast. But where is the raucous celebration? Parties in the Hall household clearly take a much more sedate form. This refined experience is enjoyable, but sometimes you need to let your hair down. Shakespeare’s celebratory play is such an excuse for a knees-up, it seems a pity that Hall has decided to turn it into a soiree.

Runs until 2nd March 2011

As You Like It @ The Roundhouse

Written for http://www.fourthwallmagazine.co.uk

Review: As You Like It – RSC @ Roundhouse ***

There’s something very adult about Michael Boyd’s smooth production of As You Like It, currently wooing audiences at The Roundhouse. Boyd takes Shakespeare’s pastoral comedy and turns it into a corseted lover; inside this sophisticated production there’s an exuberant play wriggling to get out.

It all looks and sounds gorgeous of course with Tom Piper’s design and Struan Leslie’s delicate choreography gracefully encasing this genteel beast. It’s a floating concept and you feel in a bubble as our characters traipse Piper’s minimalistic set, their clothes shifting from period to modern dress. This is perhaps to reflect the magic environment of the forest of Arden but it’s all terribly cerebral.

The performances are all also set squarely above the shoulders. This is a consummate company with each performer playing their role prettily, but in this firmament of well-crafted souls only a few truly shine. In a show that prizes earnestness over frivolity it is perhaps fitting that Jaques should be one such star. Forbes Masson has a stunning alto voice and a beautifully neat ankle. Masson languishes around the stage wittily and pointedly highlighting each ridiculous moment with Byronic flair but his purple eyes reveal an oddly moving anguish.

Katy Stephens’ Rosalind is vivacious and bold if a little hyper, her constantly glistening eyes betraying an anxious nerviness at odds with this light hearted romantic comedy. She and Mariah Gale play like tiger cubs and their love for each other is palpable. If Rosalind and Celia are usually sun and moon, here the pale moon shines just as brightly as it’s brash cousin with Gale turning in a complex, moving performance as the loyal sidekick.

That Boyd has given us an intelligent As You Like It cannot be denied.  But it never transfers from the head to the heart and though there are laughs to be had here, there is strangely very little joy.

Runs until 5th February 2011.