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.

Review: Julius Caesar at The Roundhouse

Written for www.fourthwallmagazine.co.uk

Julius Caesar is Shakespeare’s summer blockbuster, positively bristling with action packed violence. It’s a miracle Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe haven’t got their manly mitts all over it. But maybe it’s Shakespeare’s premature ejaculation that’s putting them off; the first act may be dripping with quotes like jewels, climaxing in Mark Antony’s ‘Friends, Romans..’ (you know the rest), but the second feels distinctly limp. What a disappointment.

Still you can’t blame this on the RSC or Lucy Bailey, whose rich production bleeds Shakespeare’s grisly text for everything it’s got. From the outset we are thrust into a visceral world of wrestling men, sweaty with battle and thick with ambition. Rome is a city of warriors and revellers, with William Dudley’s floating projections of coldly postmodern yet classical structures and braying flickering crowds, offering little consolation or comfort. Bailey grips this chaos tightly, with the latent aggression encased in clever choreography and power play staging.

Greg Hicks’ Caesar controls the rabble with a cocky strut befitting a King. It’s an underplayed but commanding performance and he dies beautifully taking us with him with each desperate lunge and gasping thrust.  He is given a towering eulogy by Darrell D’Silva whose Mark Antony has the crowd, and us, eating out of the palm of his hand. Wracked with grief, this giant is crippled by Caesar’s death, silken in his deception and contemptuous in his triumphant manipulation.

Sam Troughton’s Brutus is less convincing, clothed like a white friar his piety is irritating and he struggles to convince with his guilt wracked soliloquies.  This Brutus’ love for Caesar feels more like a light affection, Troughton’s absence of passion completely taking the sting out of the infamous gasp of betrayal, ‘Et tu Brute’.  His bond with the lean and hungry eyed Cassius (a solid John Mckay) is more believable, but remarkably for a relationship at the heart of the second act, is terribly dull.  It is only when he is with his fellow conspirators that Troughton blossoms into a charismatic leader and in these few scenes we get to glimpse Shakespeare’s tormented anti-hero.

Bailey has delivered another meaty piece of theatre; if you love Julius Caesar you’ll relish this gruesomely classy production.

Runs till 5th February 2011.

The Factory’s The Seagull: Improvisation is about doing things and Chekhov is essentially about people doing nothing – it’s a recipe for dire theatre

The Factory is a company that do what could literally be described as Flash-mob Theatre.  A facebook update is released on Friday about shows which are played out that Sunday and the precious 50 tickets or so sell with lighting speed because this is a troupe with a fantastic reputation for mixing it up in playfully irreverent but perceptive productions. Their latest production of The Seagull has been popping up around venues (some theatrical, though mostly not) across London for the last few months and it’s had some cracking reviews and great audience feedback.  So why were I and my friends left so non-plussed?

Having tackled Hamlet with great panache, The Factory’s off-the-cuff style, incorporating multi-playing (3 actors toss to see who plays a character each night) props taken from random audience belongings (at one Hamlet performance, a pineapple became Yorick’s skull) and improvised blocking, completely dampened Chekhov’s rapier social commentary.   The whole thing became diffused and by presenting us with a simplified version of the text it was slightly like a bad family drama, and we’ve all had enough Eastenders to last us a life time.  It is easy to feel this way about Chekhov’s work, just ask teachers who battle against bored teenagers year in year out, and indeed on many levels they are ghastly family dramas about mean spirited and self centred individuals. The brilliance comes in his precise and perceptively drawn characters, each of whom are whittled from life with minute detail.  It is in the moments when you absolutely recognise someone you know, or yourself, in these people on stage that Chekhov really pierces you.

Every word counts to get you through the mundane and skin deep unpleasantness of his characters into the painfully acute psychological studies that they are and to give you these moments of recognition. I’m not saying I’m a purist, Katie Mitchell and Martin Crimps’ key-hole surgery version at the National was a precise and minimalist masterpiece of this play, but then they were making it more specific and not less so; as she says ‘The text that emerged…was considerably shorter, leaner and more angular’.  But The Factory have decided to do a different version each night, which here means that it will always be improvised with the actors using their own words.  What has been created through this lack of structure is a convoluted and diffused production of a text that is full of light and shade, in a show which has become a muddy grey through this company’s constant need to ‘keep the ball afloat’.  This desperate need to maintain the base level of energy at all costs is also to the detriment of any detailed character work from these clearly talented performers.  There are no silences, no moments of real tension or pain, everything is slightly too comfortable because they won’t allow it to get dangerous.

The Factory’s anarchic and unabashed approach is to be applauded and encouraged, and Shakespeare’s writing was developed by them in a perfect marriage of text and performance in typically bawdy style.  However I think that Chekhov’s subtleties may be beyond this form of immediate theatre.  Maybe I’m wrong? But to get anywhere near it, they’re going to need to go right back into the text and dig a lot deeper, not discard it for a million and one improvised words.

Review – Much Ado About Nothing at St Stephen’s

In the cooling arches of the beautifully refurbished St Stephen’s in Hampstead a very gentile evening is taking place.  Antic Disposition’s production of Much Ado About Nothing may lack a raucous joie de vivre, but it is a very enjoyable, if slightly safe, evening. 

We are in the victorious year of 1945 and Don Pedro and his men have returned from fighting in the Second World War to find a society much changed in their absence.  Women have been working in roles other than that of wife and mother and the shift of power has subtly changed.  Into this framework Antic Disposition have successfully placed Shakespeare’s playful war of the sexes, Beatrice’s independence and Hero’s dutiful submission, Benedick’s acceptance of Beatrice as an equal and Don Pedro’s propensity to buy and sell women like objects, all sitting comfortably in this developing era.

Directors Ben Horslen and John Risebero utilise the elegant stone floored nave of St Stephen’s to polite effect with the red and white chequered audience tables framing the space and creating a pleasant intimacy of environment.  The sunlight dappled floor presents a very pretty stage and the action moves smoothly if a little reservedly.  Peppered with some gently smiling moments, this reserve for the most part stops these grins from ever developing into full throttle laughter and the comedy throughout is not always as prominent as it should be. Dogberry in particular has been directed in a very slow fashion making his usually hilarious scenes a little dampening.

Anouke Brook brings a centred strength and inherent sexiness to her barbed and husky Beatrice and as her sparring partner Ashley Cook is a very dapper and watchful Benedick, if lacking in a little merriment.  Bethany Minell twinkles prettily as the youthful and easily impressionable Hero, not an enviable part, and Chris Waplington turns in a very intelligent and dastardly Borachio.

Risebero’s design of delicate strings of lights and bunting which line the entrance and the white clothed, sunflower and orange filled, trestle table simply lend a gentle Southern French feel to the piece.  The sound has slight memories of The Last of the Summer Wine but although the recorded soundtrack jars a little, the cast choral singing moments are strong and fill the space impressively.

Lightly funny, gentle and pleasant, this is a restrained but highly affable night out.  If the echoes of Kenneth Branagh’s iconic 1993 film are a little strong it doesn’t really matter in a production which lightly prods at the war of the sexes and comes away leaving one, if not exactly completely satisfied, then definitely cordially warmed.

Runs at St Stephen’s Church, Hampstead until 19 July 2009

Review originally published online at http://thepublicreviews.blogspot.com/