‘GOLEM’ – REVIEW ☆☆☆☆☆

The culture: Golem, Young Vic

The cheap seats: £10 Under 25 stalls seats. Central. Perfect (though maybe a bit close to the animation at points).

Golem is totally and utterly original. It might be early to call it but I think this show might make my 2015 Top Ten and we’re still less than a fortnight into the year.

With an aesthetic of nuclear warning sign yellow, 70s cookbook nostalgia and skew whiff pen drawings, a loud soundtrack of live drums, and imaginative animation, the show dazzles its audience before bringing them back to reality with the harsh thud of its subversive message: a dystopia for the iphone generation.

Robert Robertson is an outsider working in a Binary Back-Up department, living a happy though humdrum life at home with his Gran and sister. But one day he brings a clay man called Golem who will obey his every command and life for the Robertsons is drastically changed. To begin with Golem is helpful: once awoken by a special incantation, he can write Robert’s rows of binary in double time and even get the chores done while the family sleep. But after a software update the line between servant and master gets blurry. By the term Version Two is released the tables have fully turned. Golem becomes a physically embodied quasi-Siri, the latest must-have gadget, and begins to run the world. It glues itself to the TV, spouts advert jingles and turns everything neon yellow. Robert is promised promotions, prosperity, pretty women and that ultimate reward: ‘moving with the times’. He eagerly swaps his devoted but ‘frumpy’ girlfriend for two better models, his brown attire for a geometric romper suit and snazzy new boots but it all comes at a higher cost than poor Joy’s broken, ageing heart: man has stopped controlling technology, technology now controls man.

With a super talented small cast, a sideways glance at our modern world, and a fresh approach to the possibilities of theatre, Golem is game changing. It’s a big reality check after the capitalism-fest we call Christmas. It’s a sneer at the vintage-loving normcore sheep kids. It’s a two finger salute to The Man and The System. It’s a call to arms to the individual, to the artist, to the child in us all. It’s unmissable.

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‘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!

‘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.

‘King Charles III’ – REVIEW ☆☆☆☆

The culture: King Charles III, Wyndham’s Theatre

The cheap seats: £17.50 Balcony seats. Ok so these weren’t that cheap but they were the cheapest. At least the view is face on and central (unlike the cheap seats at Wyndham’s miserly neighbour the Noel Coward). The seats are far comfier, too.

I missed the Almeida run of Mike Bartlett’s acclaimed King Charles III, a dark and cheeky imagining of our future with Prince Charles as King, and spent quite a bit of the summer lamenting the passing of its Islington incarnation. So I was over the moon to hear it had been given a West End transfer to Wyndham’s Theatre – which has just been extended until the end of January – and booked tickets straight away. By the time Dominic Cavendish from The Telegraph said “attendance is compulsory” my excitement was pretty much unbearable.

King Charles III is one of the most intelligent pieces I’ve seen in a while. It’s riddled with Shakespeare references for those who choose to appreciate them but even without the allusions to the histories or Macbeth it’s a brilliant and biting satire, more relevant than ever today as the Scottish Independence Referendum looms.  The set vaguely resembles a privy chamber of an Elizabethan court, either a nod to old Bill Shakespeare or a snarky observation about how outdated the monarchy is. This Queen Elizabeth – II not I – has just died, leaving the man we call Prince Charles King. Tim Piggott-Smith plays the perpetually waiting Prince finally given his time to rule and he is sublime. The entire cast get their mannerisms down to a tee.

The post-Elizabeth England that Bartlett presents is very dark indeed. We assume that the role of a modern monarch is all the pomp and ceremony with little of the responsibility but as we watch Charles struggle to take the reigns and, err, rein, we see that the head of state is the linchpin of our British identity and not just an empty figurehead. At the helm of the national ship as it sails into an uncertain future, Charles declares himself a map. The people always come back to a map when the modern, techy sat navs go wrong, he believes, because a map is traditional, tried and tested. But a map is also really only a piece of paper and paper is very easy to tear. The first rips come early on when Charles is asked to sign off on his first laws. In King Henry IV Part II, the King says “uneasy lies the head that wears a crown”. Charles’ head lies so uneasy that he struggles to raise it for the constitutional nod needed for Parliament’s demands – and that’s even before the weighty symbol of responsibility and power is ceremoniously plonked on his furrowed brow. Refusing to sign the privacy bill that would censor the press, he sets off the chain of events that form King Charles III and his own downfall.

But if Charles is the map then what is the sat nav that the people turn to instead? Parliament, perhaps? The play says no. I won’t give away its twists and turns for fear of spoiling it but, incredibly, its very real warning imagines a world worse than King Charles’ in a way that is incredibly provocative and very clever, if a bit far-fetched. Prince Harry is up to his usual caddish ways and falls in love with a common-er Commoner than Kate Middleton was, a back chatting art student in Doc Martens. Kate herself, meanwhile, is elevated beyond a pretty face atop a tiny, heir-producing body, becoming an ambitious and scheming Lady Macbeth figure. The unlikely voice of wisdom is a man in a kebab shop who doesn’t mince his words as he compares the state of the country to a slab of doner meat, sliced down further and further until nothing remains. Clever, very clever.

As the audience leave, Lorde’s ‘Royals’ is played. Does Bartlett say we don’t need a monarchy, “that kind of luxe just ain’t for us”? Not exactly, though King Charles III appears to flirt with the idea in places. Although his plot is a bit unfeasible and heavy handed the issues of fragile identity and an unknowable future are anything but. Ultimately the play asks: What becomes of our country when it is no longer the country we know? We may be forced to face that tough question sooner than Bartlett, or any of us, thought.

‘THE COMEDY OF ERRORS’ – REVIEW ☆☆☆☆

The culture: The Comedy of Errors, Shakespeare’s Globe

The cheap seats: £5 Yard standing tickets, Midnight Matinee

“The iron tongue of midnight hath told twelve.

Lovers, to bed; ’tis almost fairy time.” A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Not to bed, Lovers, but to the Globe. This was my first experience of the Globe’s Midnight Matinee, a gimmicky thing which involves waiting outside the wooden O on Bankside from about 10.30 and watching the Bard ’til the wee hours. I absolutely recommend this for plays like ‘Macbeth’ where the witching hour is obviously appropriate and the show would very literally “murder sleep”. Watching midnight Hamlet, one might sympathise with the Danish prince’s desire “to sleep perchance to dream” but appreciate the added gloom when the Yorick graveyard scene came around. The late night start would suit ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ or ‘Twelfth Night’ down to the ground; the black sky overhead might add tension to the darker moments of the histories; but it really adds very little to Blanche McIntyre’s wonderful ‘The Comedy of Errors’.

The midnight showing might have been a bit pointless but this is a really great production. So great that it’s difficult to believe that it’s McIntyre’s Globe debut, her ‘Comedy of Errors’ feels so perfectly measured for the space and the tastes of the fun-loving groundlings. There are a few awkward – but necessary – explanatory scenes that interrupt the fast pace but this is the writer’s fault, not the director’s. The cast hot foot it through the slapstick farce armed with big white pants on washing lines and fish for slapping each other. It’s silly and riotous and gets the complicated plot of twins and misunderstandings across brilliantly. Even at 2am we were still all following the action and howling with laughter.

The design looks like someone’s raided the Etsy Wish List of a teenage girl who’s just returned from her Gap Yah in the Balkans then added fake food and dumped the whole lot on the stage like a challenge: dodge the plastic grapes without ripping any tiny pompoms from your bright red trousers, Antipholus! I suspect the food was mainly there to facilitate a Joey Tribbiani-style turkey scene with one of the Dromios: playing with your food isn’t big or clever but it rarely fails to raise a chuckle. Jamie Wilkes (who has proved he’s just as good at theatre outside acting with Belt Up and Jethro Compton’s Edinburgh Trilogies) revels in it. His “Dopey from Snow White” inspired Dromio is the best hapless slave I’ve seen on stage.

This production doesn’t quite plumb the depths of the slave/master relationships or the odd romance between Luciana (Becci Gemmell) and Antipholus of Syracuse (Simon Harrison) which is frustrating. However, the actors put so much effort and extra bits into their parts that I’m willing to lose a few plot strands in order to get fleshier main characters. As well as being a dashingly handsome pair of Antipholuses, Harrison and Matthew Needham avoid the usual trap of same portrayal, different colour outfit by distinguishing themselves with cleverly nuanced performances. I loved Hattie Ladbury’s crazed Adriana, too.

It’s very fun indeed and technically a near perfect ‘Comedy of Errors’. It literally brings the house down. I was a bit too tired to enjoy it to the full (Midnight Matinee old-timers advise taking a nap before or at least bringing along a Thermos of strong coffee) but the atmosphere was incredible given the time. They say nothing good ever happens after 2am but the last half hour of this show was definitely laugh a minute good. The last show of the Globe’s season is the perfect finale, bringing an exotic flavour to the autumn theatre scene and a welcome ray of Balkan sunshine as the London nights draw darker and colder.

‘SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE’ – REVIEW ☆☆☆☆☆

The culture: Shakespeare in Love, Noël Coward Theatre, London

The cheap seats: £10 side view Grand Circle seats. Beware: these seats require a lot of leaning.

I was initially very, very dubious when the stage production of one of my favourite films ‘Shakespeare in Love’ was announced. Play to film adaptations are ten to a penny but it very very rarely works the other way round. When they’re good, they’re good (LION KING!) but when they’re bad, they’re catastrophic (see Fatal Attraction’s brief run at Theatre Royal Haymarket earlier this year). But Disney soothed my furrowed brow when they announced that they were working with the brilliant Sonia Friedman on Shakespeare in Love.

The production gets top marks for authenticity. The wooden set is effortlessly a tavern, a playhouse or two, the bedchamber of a lady who yearns to tread the boards, or the court of Elizabeth I. It is adorned with candles at some points, bearing a striking resemblance to my favourite theatre space in London – the Globe’s Sam Wanamaker Playhouse – and later transforms into the Globe herself (my second favourite, and my spiritual home). The creatives have really gone to every effort to make this look good and they’ve done a great job. One of the film’s main appeals for me is its evocation of Elizabethan London and, while one stage set can’t quite achieve such a full-scale re-enactment, I loved the clever compromise.

The cast are absolutely faultless. The casting of Tom Bateman as Will Shakespeare is inspired: I first saw him as a charismatic, sexy Dante Gabriel Rosetti in ‘Lizzie Siddal’ at the Arcola Theatre and here he reprises the role of brooding artist. Typecasting? Maybe, but his Shakespeare had me (and every other woman in the audience of the first preview last night) swooning. His leading lady Viola De Lesseps (a surprisngly good Gywneth Paltrow in the film) is played with angst, tenderness and a lot of fizzing chemistry by Lucy Briggs-Owen and there’s further strong support from Doug Rao as Ned Alleyn and David Oakes as Marlowe.

The stage version of Shakespeare in Love retains all that I admired of the film – its wit, its comedy, its intricately woven Shakespeare references and its conveyance of the creative process – then adds some nice touches including beautiful choral arrangements of the sonnets, a very funny real-life dog and a poignant, musical refrain created from one of my favourite speeches: Feste’s “youth’s a stuff will not endure” from Twelfth Night.

At almost 3 hours long for the preview I saw it rivals Shakespeare’s own work in length and I would say that there are a few patches that could be tightened up or condensed down towards the middle. Overall, though, this is a stunning production. What everyone loves so much about Shakespeare’s Globe on Bankside is the atmosphere and Shakespeare in Love brings the unique spirit of that Wooden O to the West End. A triumph.

A new project

Since seeing the wonderful Dame Eileen Atkins’ Ellen Terry with Eileen Atkins at The Globe’s Sam Wanamaker Indoor Jacobean Playhouse, I’ve been in love. I first became aware of Atkins when I watched the BBC’s adaptation of Cranford (her character, Deborah Jenkyns, gave the audience this gem of a scene about the vulgarities of sucking oranges feat. Judi Dench: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6eofyiE5XxA) .

But it wasn’t this great actress I fell for – that night I became enamoured of her Victorian predecessor, Ellen Terry.

 

Ellen Terry was a truly remarkable woman and the undisputed queen of the London stage in her time. She was also incredibly clever. After having watched Atkins’ captivating performance of Terry’s Four Lectures on Shakespeare I’ve been dying to read it. Unfortunately, the only copies available are £500 upwards (even on my beloved abebooks.co.uk, the home of literary bargains for hard-up students). Thankfully the Book Gods were favouring me this week as, while researching my dissertation, I stumbled across a beautiful, battered copy in my university library.

 

And so begins a new project: The Ellen Terry Project. I’ve finished studying for the year but, being an academic masochist, I plan to transcribe the whole book into some pretty brown paper notebooks so I can have my own copy of Four Lectures on Shakespeare forever!

 

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