REVIEW: The Tempest

The culture: ‘The Tempest’ by William Shakespeare, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

The cheap seats: £10 standing tickets (very restricted side view, although I managed to sneak onto an empty seat with a central sightline after the interval)

The Tempest wasn’t Shakespeare’s last play, no matter how much we wish it was. It would have been perfect – a life in art, the master of theatre’s carefully orchestrated last goodbye to the stage before burning his books and begging his audience to set him free with their applause so he could retire to the country and turn his thoughts to death. But it was not so. After Prospero exits stage right, Shakespeare would return to write Henry VIII and a collaborative play, Two Noble Kinsmen. Editing these out of the Late Works canon according to the Sam Wanamaker Winter Season creates a much neater set of plays with a pleasing narrative arch, of which Dominic Dromgoole’s production of The Tempest is the climax. The problem is that it’s not quite a climax. It’s nice: nice candle-work, nice costumes, (mostly) nice acting, and a (mostly) nice play. As a good, old-timey piece of bardolatry it’s a masterpiece, though as a piece of drama it’s hardly ground-breaking

But if you want radical Shakespeare you will have to wait for Ivo van Hove’s upcoming trilogy at the Barbican; you go to a show at the Globe for its conservative, historical approach to the Complete Works. However even by these high standards resurrecting old Will himself and planting him on stage as the well-read wizard Prospero might be a bit much. For although he has more beard and less forehead than classic portraits of Shakespeare, Tim McMullan’s Prospero is clearly meant to be an incarnation of the playwright in a production that subscribes wholeheartedly and unapologetically to the autobiographical reading of the play. This Prospero is intensely dislikable – he’s irascible, smug, and, with a female Ariel (Pippa Nixon) and his daughter Miranda (Phoebe Pryce) as his main companions, appears misogynistic until the men of Milan show up and he’s just as abrupt with them. He is a genius, but also a man who likes the sound of his own brilliant, booming voice to such an extent that it’s hard to dredge up any pity for him at all come the play’s conclusion. There’s some great character work here and if his main role in this production wasn’t ‘Shakespeare Impersonator’, Tim McMullan might have been up there with the best Prosperos I’ve seen.

‘Shakespero’ aside, the production doesn’t do much out of the ordinary (although it does feature some fabulous dinosaur dogs in the second half). With the exception of halfwit drunkards Stephano and Trinculo (affable Globe favourites Trevor Fox and Dominic Rowan, who take considerable liberties with their scripts and ad-lib with all kinds of brilliant modernisms), this Tempest is a usual doublet-and-hose affair with traditional values and a jig at the end, just what the Globe does best.

I found my eye drawn to the musicians’ gallery several times (and not just because of the startling thunderclaps), to Dominic Dromgoole’s smiling face which looks down at the audience, immortalised, painted atop the wings of a cherub. This truly is his swan song. Like Prospero and Shakespeare before him, Dromgoole is saying goodbye to the thing he has loved and invested so much in. His Tempest is about as subtle as a sledgehammer, but as well as being a solid production it’s such a fond farewell from, and to, that marvellous director and master of bardolators that, however much I disliked it, I have to admit that I admired it hugely too.


REVIEW: Pericles

The culture: ‘Pericles’ by William Shakespeare, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

The cheap seats: £10 restricted view standing in the upper gallery. And when The Globe Box Office says ‘restricted view’ they really mean it – standing on the left side of the seating plan I saw about 45% of this production (but loved it anyway). 

The Globe’s winter season – billed as a “once in a lifetime” opportunity to see “Shakespeare’s four late, indoor, classic romances” in the kind of theatre they were written for – opens with Pericles directed by Dominic Dromgoole. A play of sea-voyages, storms and separations, a riches-to-rags-to-riches story, peril and tragedy and then resurrections, reconciliations, and happy endings (almost) all round, Pericles is certainly not an easy story to tell. But, of course, the Globe manage it, staging the problematic play with magic and wonder under the warm glow of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse’s candles.

In a brilliant interview for Exeunt this week ( Pericles actor James Garnon insisted that there’s nothing pantomimic about performing on either of the Globe’s stages. But there’s certainly an element of pantomime in Pericles (She’s dead! Ohh no she isn’t! She’s dead! OHHHH NO SHE ISN’T!!!). Performing their own kind of resurrection on the play, Dromgoole and his company have opted to revive it with a heady dose of comedy, which while a welcome edition – and a break from all that sombre “romance” – does risk tipping into ridiculousness at times. But the Globe’s ensemble are nothing if not experts in dancing that fine line between well-done and overdone comedy and have us all laughing harder than ever before at the tragi-comedy of Pericles, Prince of Tyre. While probably not to everyone’s taste, emphasising the comedy in tragi-comedy does important work by sidestepping the bardic reverence that too-often grips productions of Shakespeare’s final works.

After some peril surrounding an incestuous father/daughter pair and some heroism involving saving a starving nation with some sacks of corn, young Prince Pericles sets out on a voyage back home to Tyre and is shipwrecked, washing up on the shore of a foreign land. Here, stripped of his riches, he wins a knight’s contest for the hand of beautiful princess Thaisa (Dorothea Myer-Bennett) and also wins her heart despite his rusty armour. They marry and Thaisa falls pregnant. Having learnt nothing from his previous near-death experience, Pericles once more returns to the open waves. Another thunderstorm hits his ship, Thaisa goes into labour, and Pericles is presented with his newborn daughter and the news that Thaisa has died in childbirth. Pericles is heartbroken, cradling first the baby he names Marina (after the sea that almost killed them all…) and then the body of his wife (which he hauls about the stage, her bloodstained dress swinging, his eyes wide with horror). Leaving Thaisa’s corpse at sea and baby Marina with noble friends, he heads home to Tyre. But when Thaisa’s coffin washes ashore all is not as it seems. And virginal Marina (Jessica Baglow, whose performance cuts through the more outrageous scenes with innocence and a determined serenity) faces an assassin’s knife before encounters with pirates and pimps when she grows up to be more beautiful than the daughter of the couple who raised her.

Not worn threadbare by performance like Hamlet or MacbethPericles can still feel fresh, new, and exciting. There are audible gasps of shock and horror, cackles of disbelief, and even a few tears in the auditorium as the unlikely plot unfolds – a rare and joyous thing at a performance of Shakespeare. And it is new, in a way. While some productions popped indoors for one night only over the summer, Pericles is the first Shakespeare production designed for the Sam Wanamaker’s stage. Of course we’ll never know what first audiences saw or felt but there’s a beautiful sense that creeps up on you as the candles are lit and lifted and Claire van Kampen’s music stirs that this is how it might have been, way back when.

Pulling out all the stops and using most of the features of the Playhouse, Perciles is subtly spectacular. There are entrances from the Heavens and below, a storm-torn ship conjured with cloth and ropes, clever use of candlelight and chilling blackness. From the bawdy-house banter, to Pericles’ poetry and philosophy, and even old Gower’s narrations, the performances pin down the play and interrogate it intelligently, smoothing most of its flaws and opening it up to the audience. The result really is a play for the season, a truly heartwarming affair.



Shakespeare: Our Contemporary?

The culture: ‘Measure for Measure’, Young Vic; ‘As You Like It’, National Theatre; ‘Henry V’, Barbican

The cheap seats: restricted side view at the Young Vic (a nice, safe distance from all those sex dolls), £5 central front row seats at the National so I could enjoy a particularly beautiful Orlando, £5 RSC Key tickets at the Barbican – my sweet spot seat (M22, Stalls).

The thing with playing with the canon is that it can explode – either with a damp squib or brilliant pyrotechnics. Watching three recent London productions of Shakespeare, I’ve had very different experiences. If my trips to productions of  Young Vic, the National Theatre and the Barbican were a game of Snog, Marry, Avoid, I would steer clear of Measure for Measure, kiss As You Like It while grinning in a brightly coloured, frilly underskirt surrounded by origami flowers, and I’d marry dear, dependable Henry V because the RSC’s production would be the kind of amiable husband who would never cheat or forget to put the bins out, but would tell a dirty joke every now and then just so you didn’t entirely regret plumping for predictable, comfortable, suburban matrimony.

Sticking to what they do best, the good ship RSC and captain Greg Doran create a clear Henry V. Alex Hassell, who was the perfect Hal, doesn’t quite seem to have settled or grown into the role, even after a full run in Stratford, but the ensemble, as ever, is brilliant. A particular highlight is Robert Gilbert as pouting court poser the Dauphin of France. Henry V is the RSC at its finest doing what it does best – dressing up in lots of leather, doing a bit of sword fighting and speaking verse exceptionally well. It was very entertaining but not a single patch of ground was broken.

But then super modern doesn’t always work either, as the Young Vic’s Measure for Measure (dir. Joe Hill-Gibbins) can testify. Maybe they sent a hapless production assistant to Ann Summers as a joke. The mountain  of blow up sex dolls is certainly funny to start with, but soon the laughter wears thin. The actors are literally wading through pink plastic, pushing genitals aside to do their monologues and it suddenly seems a bit grotesque.

Then there’s the filming. The prison scenes are like a weird sex dungeon episode of a dodgy MTV series filmed on shaky handheld cameras and projected onto the wooden board at the back of the set. Romola Garai’s Isabella is strong – all angry shouting, eloquence and stubborn righteousness where poor Mariah Gale was restricted to wide, wet eyes and disbelief over at the Globe this summer. The ending’s good too and making the Duke a bit mad is a really clever way of dealing with the play’s greatest problem.  As a heavily cut text running for two hours with no interval it’s underdeveloped and rushed but at least clear and concise in its vision. There is, however, no escaping the gimmicks, especially since at least a hundred of them are slap bang in the centre of the stage with gaping mouths. It’s not sexy or shocking, just a little bit awkward, and it adds little to nothing to the play.

Perhaps, then, the best answer to the question To Modernise or Not To Modernise? is just to sidestep it and make a production timeless. Polly Findlay’s As You Like It at the National’s Olivier Theatre begins in a modern setting. The Duke’s court is an office with whirring technology smartly dressed workers. Neatly clipped bonsai trees under lamps and forest desktop screensavers seem to replace the forest of Arden and it looks like a clever metaphor for how we’ve forgotten nature in a sea of capitalism. Someone from the house of Dubois comes in to trim the bonsai, sticking out like a sore thumb in the chic black office with his rustic chest of tools. It turns out to be wholesome Orlando (Joe Bannister), come to rescue fair Rosalind (Rosalie Craig) from the corporate court.

The scene change is nothing short of spectacular and from this point the play is radical Shakespeare. When the tables and chair fly up and the office set wheels back I expected a lush green forest. Instead, we’re given a post-apocalyptic scene with a smashed tarmac floor. Everyone wears camo colours and chunky knitwear, shivering and huddling for warmth, occasionally bursting into folk song to boost morale. Polly Findlay’s “Forest” of Arden can be cruel or kind and the spooky gothic feathered spirits perched on suspended office furniture chirp like sparrows or squark like ravens.

The dangling desks, covered in Post-It love notes by Orlando, are a bit odd until you embrace them and appreciate them as a kind of dark cubist set. The lines are often anachronistic but the performances are strong, particularly Bannister’s Orlando and Patsy Ferran’s show-stealing Celia, not usually a character who gets to shine but played for all she’s worth and more by Ferran, with her gift for comedy, timing, and kooky facial expressions. The ending is very ‘Wizard of Oz’ but it’s so fun and beautiful that it’s impossible not to get totally swept up in it all – just as you should by a good Shakespeare comedy.

These three London productions have shown me just how picky I am about my Shakespeare productions.Essentially, it’s been like a theatre-based rewrite of ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears’.  The Young Vic’s Measure for Measure was too hot and left me cold. The RSC’s Henry V was good (and a great end to the King and Country Cycle I’ve enjoyed over the past few years) but too conventional for my taste. Polly Findlay’s dynamic As You Like It at the National Theatre, however, was just right, and just as I like it. More than this, these productions illustrate three approaches to staging canonical texts and prove that playing with Shakespeare can still create infinite variety.


‘A Midsummer Night’s dream (As You Like It)’ – REVIEW ☆☆.5

The culture: A Midsummer Night’s Dream (As You Like It), Barbican

The cheap seats: £10.50 student price Circle seats. Sold as restricted view but actually the perfect spot – you need a bit of height and distance to really appreciate the brilliant giant puppets in this production.

This summer I was dazzled by Dmitry Krymov Lab’s incredible Opus No. 7, an experimental theatre piece that dealt with the horrors of the Holocaust by throwing black paint angrily against paper walls before tearing them down and letting a giant puppet dance to Shostakovich. So when the Barbican emailed me to announce the Russian company’s return to London I snapped up a ticket. The promo shots were released – a jack russell balanced on the head of a man in black tie. I was excited. I wanted Opus with a dancing dog and some Shakespeare.

To its credit, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (As You Like It) does deliver on 1.5 counts. There is indeed a real life dog who trots about the stage much to the audience’s glee. It wasn’t really all that relevant but still almost brought the house down when it walked on its tiny front legs, which is kind of dancing, right? The remaining .5 is the Shakespeare: although the basis of the show is the mechanicals’ play from A Midsummer Night’s Dream there is a striking absence of old Bill. A couple of lines from the Bard’s best known sonnet are hastily read out at the end as if in an attempt to make up for this oversight but it doesn’t quite work.

Some of the funniest moments of the original – when Peter Quince doles out the parts to his troupe of hapless am-drams – are confined to a few blank lines projected onto a piece of wood. Instead of the farcical tale of the lion, the lovers and la lune Krymov proffers the ‘real story’ of Pyramus and Thisbe, which is not quite As I Like It.

After an awkwardly slow start, giant puppets act out the tragedy accompanied by some stunning (and inexplicably German) opera singing. At points it seems as if the company are about to burst into something as epic as their Opus was, only to fall back on the crude and easy humour of a giant inflatable penis or a 14ft puppet weeing into a bowl.

It’s all silly and fun but frustrating in that it’s not the kind of genre shattering theatre we all know Krymov and his Lab are capable of. With A Midsummer Night’s Dream (As You Like It) they tease us with glimpses of the magic of their craft (the way they can leap across language barriers with physicality and just pour vibrant life and drama into planks of wood, odds and ends, and turn a collection of mismatched objects into a pair of star-crossed lovers) but let it fall flat. They’ve swapped the breathtaking newspaper blizzard of Opus No. 7 for the underwhelming drizzle of a giant puppet’s tears. So much of this show feels simply irrelevant. But at least there’s a dancing dog.