Such stuff as dreams are made on

  • I read Sonnet 40 to a group of strangers in exchange for a shot of something alcoholic from a handsome bartender in doublet and hose.
  • A spirit stared into my eyes and smeared glittery sand all over my face.
  • I watched Shakespeare sleep for a bit.
  • Queen Elizabeth I lip-synced Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love’.

These weird and wonderful encounters are not extracts from my dreams (promise), but moments from Sedos Theatre’s ‘Such Stuff As Dreams Are Made On’ by Sarah Heenan, a dazzling immersive journey through Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

On the eve of the Bard’s birth/death day I found myself in a disused office block in London’s docklands that, from the outside at least, looked like the last place you would find exciting Shakespeare. On the inside, though, it was a whole other story. The space had been transformed into an island full of noises, a maze of rooms filled with sand, the timber of a ship wreck, leaves of paper and ivy, origami boats, and Trinculo’s wine bottles.

I can’t really do it justice in words. It was a beautiful piece of rough magic.

 

“Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometime voices,
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me; that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again.”

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.

Lagers and Trombones and Bears, Oh My!

The culture: ‘The Winter’s Tale’, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse; ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’, National Theatre Lyttelton; ‘Iphigenia in Splott’, National Theatre Temporary Theatre

The cheap seats: £10 standing tickets at the Sam Wanamaker; £5 Entry Pass in the Circle for ‘Ma Rainey’ (which gave me a great view of the set); £20 full price side view for ‘Iphigenia’ (Entry Pass ones had sold out but I’m so glad I splurged).

I’ve seen a lot of beige theatre lately, stuff that’s not got me excited enough to write about, stuff I’ve neither loved nor hated. To be honest I was worrying that, after a dodgy tail-end of 2015 (I’m looking at you, Young Vic Macbeth), 2016 was going to be a duff one. But in the first grey and miserable week of February I scored a hat-trick. Here’s my week in review, and it’s full of strong women, powerful words, and brilliant theatre.

Tuesday: The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

The ‘Late Shakespeare’ winter season at the Globe’s Sam Wanamaker Playhouse has been an interesting project so far. After a strong start with Dominic Dromgoole’s Pericles, I was a little disappointed by a Cymbeline (dir. Sam Yates) that although clear and beautiful lacked the magic and wow-factor of its predecessor. Michael Longhurst’s Winter’s Tale, the third production in this repertory, is gripping, dark, and powerful from its opening moments. The first half ends with the auditorium plunged into a chilling darkness, populated by bears and lonely candles, before the second half lifts the spirits from the depths of despair, gathering everyone round the fire for a good old-fashioned knees-up and a hey-nonny-nonny sing-song led by James Garnon’s cheeky Autolycus and a whole flock of ruddy-faced country folk. There’s some weird, primal sheep dancing that is really best buried somewhere deep in your subconscious where you’ll never have to encounter it again, but overall this Winter’s Tale is a joyous production of my new favourite Shakespeare play and worth seeing for Rachael Stirling’s Hermione and Niamh Cusack’s passionate Paulina alone.

Thursday: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom by August Wilson, National Theatre – Lyttelton 

Another one for those who like their theatre with a strong kick of feisty femininity, Dominic Cooke’s production of August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, starring Sharon D. Clarke as the titular Mother of the Blues, has a woman calling the shots in a music world dominated by white men. The story follows a diva’s battle to get control of her music in 1920s Chicago, and her band’s own struggles as black men in America. It’s an incredible story inspired by real-life and told with a whole lot of soul in this adaptation. The cast is faultless and it is so refreshing to see such diversity on a National Theatre stage. The two young black guys sitting next to me were, tellingly, not discussing the current whiter-than-white repertoire (As You Like It, Waste) but remembering their last trip to the National (Amen Corner, the last time I saw so many non-white faces on this patch of the South Bank) and getting excited for their next theatre trip – Red Velvet at the Garrick. This just goes to show that all the NT need to do to improve access and participation is to finally put more brilliant, diverse work in their programme!

Friday: Iphigenia in Splott by Gary Owen, National Theatre – Temporary Theatre

This was absolutely the jewel in the crown of my week of great theatre. Gary Owen’s one-woman play – furiously, movingly, beautifully brought to life by Sophie Melville’s phenomenal performance – is a battle cry for the NHS, screaming in the face of the Tory government and laying bare the bruises and bodies caused by Conservative cuts under stark neon lights. Effie is the kind of girl that seems more likely to be doing heroin down a dark alley of her rundown hometown than acting like a national heroine. She gets so wasted that she’s wiped out for the rest of the week just to pass the time. She staggers about with a two-day hangover, barely surviving on 25p instant noodles, smoking weed with her good for nothing boyfriend Kev. She’s a horrible symptom of a sick nation riddled with unemployment and weakened by a toxic drinking culture. We are repelled. She owns it. Effie aggressively confronts our prejudice against her before telling her story in her own words. It’s bitterly tragic and harrowingly told. By the end our horror isn’t focused on the ballsy, bad-mouthed, bleach-blonde Effie but on ourselves, our privilege, our ignorance of a country in tatters and a whole section of our society forced to be heroic because there’s no other way to keep going. I cried big ugly tears, gulping down sobs, like so many others were, so we wouldn’t ruin the stunned silence smothering the Temporary Theatre. What Iphigenia in Splott does in 75 minutes is more than most plays can do in three hours. This is what theatre is supposed to be like. I’m getting a bit emotional just thinking about it.

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 (http://exeuntmagazine.com/features/james-garnon-you-cant-sit-back-you-have-to-sit-forward-whats-the-point-otherwise/) 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.

 

Forced Entertainment’s ‘Measure for Measure’

The culture: ‘Measure for Measure’ by William Shakespeare, retold by Cathy Naden as part of Forced Entertainment’s complete works series

The cheap seats: Free – live streamed to my bedroom via the Guardian

Cathy Naden sets the scene
Cathy Naden sets the scene

Forced Entertainment’s latest theatrical venture is a much needed breath of fresh air amidst the starry casts and high-budget London productions that Shakespeare usually demands. The experimental company don’t need Benedict Cumberbatch or sky high ticket prices to tell Will’s tales: re-enacting plays with household objects, they’re ambitiously and imaginatively live-streaming the Complete Works of Shakespeare.

The infamous ending
The infamous ending

In this Measure for Measure, Claudio enters guarded by two bottles of Tippex. Isabella is a dainty china teacup and the Duke is played by a bottle of deodorant, hidden inside an empty toilet roll when he disguises himself as a monk. It’s like puppetry with no strings attached. Very apt for a play about liberty, Forced Entertainment have freed Shakespeare from all that makes it daunting – the language, the ticket prices, the exclusivity of the physical theatre – by streaming it for free and opting for a summary approach over a line-by-line reading. Cathy Naden makes the play incredibly accessible, presenting her hour-long rendition with the knowing brevity of a GCSE English teacher prepping her class for a Shakespeare exam, flashes of wit, and that pinch of female scepticism which the play’s dubious moral code and infamous ending require.

It’s a tribute to the power of the story, and Naden’s calm and considered telling of it, that watching the contents of a kitchen cupboard and a stationery drawer be moved around a table top is so compelling. The inanimate objects seem to have strong opinions and deep emotions and somehow watching Angelo, a bottle of Copydex, become consumed by lust for the cup that represents novice nun Isabella doesn’t seem ridiculous at all.

I loved it so much that I’m off to reenact Timon of Athens with my toiletries.

The End
Curtain call

‘The Merchant of Venice’ – REVIEW ☆☆☆☆☆  

The culture: The Merchant of Venice, Almeida Theatre

The cheap seats: £17 partially restricted view seats. The pillars at the Almeida are a nightmare to negotiate but the one I was sat behind was only an issue once or twice. Otherwise nice and central in the stalls.

What’s a pound of flesh in a town where flesh can be bought by the dollar? What becomes of a debt on the casino floor where money flows like tap water? Those are the questions that Rupert Goold’s on the money Almeida revival of the RSC’s ‘The Merchant of Venice’ asks, with all the confidence of its strutting showgirls. Swapping the Rialto Bridge and mercantile Venice for the seedy Rialto Hotel and the bright lights of the Vegas Strip, Shakespeare is plunged into a world of glitz, glamour, kitsch and camp with a hyper economy and an Elvis impersonator – who turns out to be none other than Launcelot Gobbo (Jamie Beamish).

The stakes may be higher, with $3million replacing the original’s mere three thousand ducats, but the terrible bond is the same as ever. If Antonio cannot repay the money he owes to Shylock for the loan his friend Bassanio took out to woo Portia then a pound of flesh will be cut from his chest. The modern day setting only makes this seem more barbaric.

The casket-based contest for Portia’s hand ingeniously becomes a game show called Destiny which she and Nerissa front. Playing the pair as deceptively ditzy and glamorous all-American girls flashing long legs in tight dresses, Susannah Fielding (Portia) and Emily Plumtree (Nerissa) reap in the laughs before flaunting their wittiness in their moments off camera and, of course, in the court scenes. Susannah Fielding’s Portia is a revelation.

Behind all the glitter this production is gutsy and provocative, wrestling with the issues of the play with intelligence and originality. It’s highly conceptual but in a way that suits the play perfectly and ‘The Merchant of  Venice’ emerges from the update totally reinvigorated by such deep consideration and questioning.

It’s all too easy for this play to be hijacked by its best known and most divisive character, Shylock, and Ian McDiarmid is brilliant all the way from his usuring high to his unbearable cowering low. But Goold’s production does not allow us to forget that this is ‘The Merchant of Venice’ and not ‘The Jew of Venice’. Scott Handy’s performance as that merchant, Antonio, is near faultless, as is the slow-building relationship between Antonio and Bassanio (Tom Weston-Jones) which is delicately done and beautiful but still really hammers home the tragedy.

There are no winners at the end of a play so fraught with misery and almost all the assembled characters are looking heartbroken or lonesome by the time Elvis’ last song plays out. No winners, that is, but the audience, who really hit the jackpot with this production. There’s not a single moment that isn’t truly exciting: ‘The Merchant of Venice’ might just set your soul on fire. Viva Las Vegas!