Category Archives: Shakespeare

Julius Caesar – Bridge Theatre

Julius Caesar, Bridge Theatre

‘The fault… is not in our stars / But in ourselves… think of the world’. No matter where Julius Caesar is performed or when it is set, as these commuted lines demonstrate, this 400-year old play is always incredibly prescient, asserting the foolishness of rash action and the arrogance of politicians. Yet, over-hasty decisions are made by officials all the time, ones that have avoidable consequences had they been given proper thought and chosen for the right reasons. And while the assassination of a leader may be the ultimate political act, nobility of intention ultimately results in uncertainty, fear and a dangerous power vacuum.

Many of Shakespeare’s plays examine the corrupting and destructive desire for power that urges men to ruin or, more often, murder their friends. When Macbeth plunges daggers into Duncan’s chest, it is a lust for Kingship that has driven him to it; Claudius, intending to wed his sister-in-law, pours poison in the ear of Hamlet’s father to feed his monarchical ambition, while Lear’s grasping daughters secure their inheritance and his crown, but turf-out their ill father to wander in the wilderness. But none of these characters are allowed to enjoy their victory for long, those who falsely obtain power are punished, the blood on their hands being a symbolic first step to their own demise.

Julius Caesar follows the same course, considering two types of power – the dictator and parliamentary approaches – leaving it up to individual productions and the audience to decide which (if either) offers the most chance of happiness for a nation. At the start of the play Caesar is triumphant, returned from Gaul feted, loved and invincible, a colossus bestriding the world, and we hear rather than see that he is a dictator, an emperor, near enough a King trying to rule without democratic process. Pitted against him are a band of Senators who fear their ‘overmighty’ ruler and determine that for the good of the Republic he must be assassinated. Although led by the noble Brutus whose honourable conscience urges action to assuage his principles, the other conspirators have muddier means, and so Shakespeare offers a fascinating debate about the right to kill for a supposed greater good.

This has long been one of my favourite Shakespeare plays, and the buzz surrounding the first few performances of Nicholas Hytner’s interpretation, and its excellent cast, has raised considerable expectations. And the excitement is entirely deserved because the Bridge Theatre’s new production of Julius Caesar is magnificent, energetic and perfectly conceived, with a vision that not only brings a new clarity to the play but is consistently applied to every imaginatively staged and riveting minute of this two-hour show. Yes, it’s loud, brash and even a tad gimmicky in places, it starts with a blaring concert and ends celebrating the name of a ‘glorious’ new leader, but this rock-and-roll Shakespeare has an emotional depth and force that is never less than entirely compelling.

This in-the-round / promenade (for the pit audience) production, is a marvel of design ingenuity. Created by Bunny Christie, multiple platforms rise from the floor to create stages, homes, the Senate and the battlefield, placing the characters above the crowd and lending an authenticity to the moments of genuine oration and spectacle. The whole place feels like a boxing ring or a bullfighting arena, starkly lit by Bruno Poet and carried through into the performances as David Calder’s Caesar makes his entrance like a victorious champ returning to the ring for one last bout. It feels appropriate for what follows, as soldiers and politicians go head to head in a fight to the death.

Of the many intriguing elements in Hytner’s approach, the clear divide he draws between the two camps brings real clarity to why the story unfolds as it does. Caesar, Mark Anthony and even Octavian are strategic, powerful men who think logically about what must be done, while the conspirators, led by Brutus, are cerebral, carefully arguing their case with precedents and regulation using assassination as a theoretical act, without properly understanding the physical effect it will have on them or the ability to foresee, or satisfactorily conduct, the war which follows.

The conspirators don’t feel dangerous as such, a deliberate choice, and while they do kill a man, Hytner makes them seem like a group of liberals, bogged down in the intellectual cause and utterly out of their depth. A sly hint too of the distance of politicians from the will of the people and how little they understand what people really want from government. How timely that feels.

The portrayal of Brutus underscores all of this with Ben Whishaw easily delivering one of his best stage performances to date, and that is a high bar indeed. Brutus is actually quite a difficult role and is often the weakest aspect of productions. Noble in both behaviour and respected lineage, the contradiction of his friendship with Caesar and decision to end his life can make the character seem too remote. But Whishaw sidesteps this with an idea of Brutus’s essential fallibility that offers new insight into his behaviour and to the eventual failure of the central plot.

Whishaw’s bookish Brutus, for all his academic prowess, is shown to be a terrible decision-maker – something more clearly marked in Whishaw’s performance than previously seen. As unofficial leader, he repeatedly overrules the cautious and more astute Cassius to take the wrong path, leading to their downfall. The decisions to only kill the dictator, to bathe their hands in Caesar’s blood, to let Mark Anthony speak to the mob alone and to face his enemy at Philippi where he then attacks too early are used by Whishaw to demonstrate Brutus’s arrogance and lack of strategic thinking.

Casting Cassius as a woman – a superb interpretation by Michelle Fairley – only adds even more weight to Brutus’s flaws as he becomes a mansplaining fool, patronising his female colleagues who have considerably more insight that he does. Whishaw’s Brutus believes he is a good man and for a while the audience thinks so too, but for all his conscience-wrangling before the act, he has no insight into himself or ability to see beyond the intellectual liberal cause he espouses. He is no man of the people and Whishaw shows with incredible clarity that Brutus aligns with Shakespeare’s great tragic heroes, a man driven to destruction by his own fatal flaw, an inability to see the world as it really is.

By contrast David Morrissey’s Mark Anthony is fully a man of the world, not remotely sensitive, arrogant and determined to enjoy life’s pleasures, but steeped in military knowledge and loved by the mob which makes him a far shrewder politician than his counterparts. Morrissey shows that love for a fellow soldier is more real than the false idea of friendship offered by the political elite, and his carefully controlled oration at Caesar’s funeral is brilliantly delivered as he sets aside the microphone to walk into the crowd, genuinely creating a sense of outrage and thirst for revenge that fills the auditorium. Unlike Brutus, Morrisey’s Mark Anthony knows exactly who he is and has the savvy to evoke a chaos in Rome that he knows exactly how to control.

The gender-blind casting is a production highlight, fitting seamlessly into a traditionally male-dominated play, adding a modern spin, while allowing Michelle Fairley as Cassius, Adjoa Andoh as Casca and Leila Farzad as Decius Brutus in particular to deliver top-notch performances as co-conspirators. Fairley’s Cassius is full of bitter scorn for the great leader she once rescued from drowning, and her demands for equality seem to speak to the ages. Fairley charts how Cassius’s manipulation of Brutus is abruptly turned around when she is forced to concede to what she supposes is his greater understanding, which adds fury to their confrontation before Philippi as she viciously chastises him for the mess he’s created.

Andoh’s Casca is a glowering presence who enjoys the grubby criminality of murder far more than ideals of liberating the Republic, while Farzad brilliantly captures the contrast between thought and deed as her confident Decius Brutus leads Caesar to his death then promptly bursts into tears afterwards, overcome by the reality and stain of what they’ve done. Through all this David Calder’s small role as the hardly seen titular dictator haunts everyone, a man who dons a politician’s suit under the slogan ‘Do This! (cleverly taken from Antony’s line in Act 1, Scene 2 “When Caesar says, ‘do this’, it is performed”), but retains his military bearing. Calder is commanding and ‘constant as the northern star’ but leaves the audience to decide whether he deserved to die.

Nicholas Hytner’s production of Julius Caesar is nothing short of Roman triumph, capturing the wonderful lyricism of Shakespeare’s writing, in what are some of his most beautiful speeches, with an urgency of action that means two hours just races by. The production vision is so strong and so consistently applied that a plot that starts in Brutus’s living room and ends at the wire-strewn battlefield of Philippi seems a natural progression. Whether you’re being slightly pushed around in the pit or safely seated, once again the striking modernity of the play, of people who kill for power and leave disaster in its place, rings out. It is humanity’s poor thinking not destiny that causes the world’s problems, and 400 years after it was first performed this play reminds us this is still the case. So, listen to Caesar’s moto and get a ticket for this thrilling production while you can – “Do This!”

Julius Caesar is at the Bridge Theatre until 15 April with an NT Live cinema screening on 22 March. Tickets start at £15, with standing tickets available to be part of the Roman crowd. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1   

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Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead – The Old Vic

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The chance to see something you thought you knew well in an entirely different light is one of the continual draws of theatre. A different performer, a new director, a change of venue can all bring a fresh perspective on well-known plays, and when a production surprises you it can be a forceful experience. In 1966 Tom Stoppard took that idea a step further by not only thinking of a new way to stage Hamlet but by writing a whole new play that shifts the central perspective to its most purposeless characters – Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

By a stroke of fortune a version of Hamlet and Stoppard’s comic counterpart, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, are opening in London within a week of each, and after seeing The Almeida’s high quality production of Shakespeare’s original tragedy starring Andrew Scott as the grief-filled and philosophising Dane, a visit to The Old Vic to see David Leveaux’s wonderfully whimsical version of Stoppard’s play starring Daniel Radcliffe, Joshua McGuire and David Haig is perfectly timed. Already more than a week into previews and with press night scheduled for tomorrow, this is the best thing The Old Vic has done since The Master Builder this time last year, and is already an absolute joy to watch.

As the play opens Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are waiting for something to happen to them, playing games of chance to pass the time. But they remember that they have been summoned to attend on Claudius, the King of Denmark, who needs them to find out whether their old friend Prince Hamlet is really mad. On the way they meet a grungy group of travelling players also bound for Elsinore but even when the drama erupts around them, the pair are sidelined with no clear purpose. Can they leave, do they have any agency of their own, will they ever reconcile their fears of inevitable death and what will happen when they get to England?

Stoppard’s characters are humorously conscious of their own existence as theatrical devices and this is something Leveaux’s production and Anna Fleischel’s clever fantastical design emphasise really well. More than once Guildenstern tells us their knowledge of Hamlet’s story is as much as the audience is told in Shakespeare’s play and nothing more. So they sit idly by while events occur in other rooms only occasionally crossing their path. They are oblivious to their own part in what’s to come and entirely without individual purpose to deflect what seems an inevitable outcome – almost as though they know they are just characters within their own lives while decisions are made by some unseen hand.

This meta feel to the show is reflected in Fleischel’s set, built out at the front and extending far into the background like a grand studio, a vast cavernous space suggesting how these two little characters are swept-up by larger events. The sliding walls, ceiling and backdrop are painted with clouds in what can only be described as sky-blue pink, it is a place of enchanted unreality, setting the story somewhere that’s not quite real, a whimsical dream that gives them a magical half-life of sorts. Extending the theme, curtains swish in and out to change the scene (and one is printed with a Tudor ship which unknown to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern presages what is to come) and gives their world a feeling of being an elaborate play.

Similarly, the main characters of Hamlet are reduced to extravagant bit parts, as they flounce in and out, dressed in deliberately exaggerated costume like dolls or puppets while only the two leads appear in ‘normal’ doublet and hose. And while the characters are made to look like actors, the players have an otherness about them, with painted white faces and clownish garb, while their leader, the Player King is a grubby figure in a borrowed red military coat and shaggy hair. All of this works beautifully to create a sense of whimsy and unreality but with a dark edge that suits the sense of foreboding that overshadows the play even in its most hilarious moments.

Daniel Radcliffe and Joshua McGuire are a perfect pairing as the titular characters, both uniquely drawn while also two halves of the same coin. Radcliffe is developing into a really interesting actor, and someone who likes to make unusual choices that stretch him. Still hugely famous for the Harry Potter series he could easily have coasted in a series of similar high-paid parts, or may well not need to work at all, but instead he has tested himself in diverse roles from a Broadway musical to serious indie films that suggest an actor admirably eager to learn and to pursue work that interests him primarily.

Here as Rosencrantz, Radcliffe gives a fine comic performance and develops a genuine rapport with McGuire as they passively wait for action to occur around them. Rosencrantz is fairly empty-headed, often unable to remember anything for more than a few seconds and with an innocence that makes him pretty credulous, although he surprised us occasionally by being more perceptive than his partner, getting the measure of a situation exactly. Radcliffe subtly presents all of these elements without them becoming tiresome or too overtly goofy in the two hour 30 minute run time, but also adds a streak of frustration when the pair are left alone for long periods at Elsinore showing the audience why their meta-role as a device is difficult for them.

McGuire’s Guildenstern is almost a contrast, always thinking, philosophising and trying to understand their purpose while still failing to develop any purpose of his own, reliant on others to direct them. He takes the lead in most encounters and is more willing to do Claudius’s bidding without question out of respect for the King, but seems the most worn down by their role in events, as McGuire shows how shockingly Guildenstern’s own fate becomes clear. There is a lot of bantering word-play which McGuire and Radcliffe deliver at a considerable pace without losing any of the wit of Stoppard’s script and its clear how hard they’ve worked together to create a relationship that feels genuine with lots of cleverly integrated physical humour that draws a lot of the laughs on the night.

David Haig leads a motley crew as The Player and while in Hamlet they appear as classical and highly-regarded thespians, in Stoppard’s version they are a low rent travelling crew a step away from prostitution – which they appear to also offer. Haig is fantastically grimy as their chief, a bit of a geezer with long straggly hair, tattoos and military coat – always dressed for performance he claims – imagine Danny Dyer doing Poldark with a bit of Arthur Daley thrown in. Haig is clearly having a ball all the time he is on stage and, as always, he almost steals the show whenever he appears, but it’s a performance that fits neatly into the style of production the company have created with everyone clearly working in unison.

Having seen a proper and serious Hamlet in Angel, it’s great to see how well Stoppard lampoons the original story as scenes from Shakespeare’s play come into the hearing of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, just not quite enough for them to know what’s actually going on. Hamlet himself (Luke Mullins) is portrayed as a self-involved and over-preening idiot who talks to himself, while Claudius and Gertrude (Wil Johnson and Marianne Oldham) are exaggerated toy-theatre creations. Arguably none of them speak Shakespeare’s lines with clarity but we not really here for that.

With both plays opening so close together it is the perfect opportunity to see them side-by-side, although perhaps not on the same day. With the Almeida’s show running at four hours and this at two and half that would be a massive, although not impossible, undertaking. And seeing Hamlet first is probably the right way to do it as a reminder of the plot – you probably do need to know it well enough to get all the references in Stoppard’s play. But Leveaux’s version of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is a real treat, funny, beautifully staged and full of joy thanks to pitch perfect central performances from Haig, McGuire and Radcliffe.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is at the Old Vic until 29th April and tickets start at £12. There will be an NT Live cinema screening on 20 April and the show is participating in the TIX £20 front row lottery. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Hamlet – The Almeida

 

hamlet-the-almeida-by-miles-aldridgeAt just shy of four hours, it’s fair to say the Almeida’s new version of Hamlet, which has its press night tomorrow, is by far the longest I’ve ever seen, and while it doesn’t always feel as long as it is, anyone lucky enough to have tickets to this already sold out run should brace themselves for a marathon. And while the overall production is pretty good, has a quite excellent central performance and is bubbling with ideas, it also has a few inconsistencies and frustrations that the extended length draws attention to. But of course four hours is an awfully long time to be doing anything; you could watch two movies, take the Eurostar from London to Paris and start to sightsee, read a 200 page book or watch an omnibus edition of Four in a Bed and still have 90 minutes to spare.

But Hamlet is a character that you want to spend time with, an endlessly fascinating creation who holds a ‘mirror up to nature’ and gets to the very heart of life, death, grief and madness, who for centuries has attracted actors desperate for their turn to play the role. There is no wrong way to perform it because it is always a very personal reading, and 18 months ago, when reviewing Cumberbatch’s Hamlet at the Barbican, I talked about there being as many interpretations of Hamlet as there are actors to play him and audiences to watch. What you see in Hamlet will depend on you and eventually there will be an actor who plays him exactly as you imagine he should be.

In recent times most of the versions we’ve seen have largely been straightforward hero-Hamlets, distraught with grief and feigning madness to seek a just revenge, while the actors who’ve played him, despite nuances they bring to the character are those we largely associated with good-guy roles – Tennant, Cumberbatch, Whishaw – all actors the public see a certain way, playing characters who are at heart decent people. So it feels right that Andrew Scott’s new version at The Almeida shifts the balance, giving us a Hamlet that is full of rage and bitterness, whose true madness is entirely possible.

Director Robert Icke has set his version in a sleek office or waiting room,  a purgatorial no man’s land, with sliding glass doors that lead to a rear section of the stage where occasional images are played at the back of the action – Gertrude and Claudius dancing happily at their wedding, Hamlet visiting Ophelia in her closet – which brings out the play’s sense of layers, while the glass doors offer distorted reflections of the characters, the mirroring that Hamlet refers to early on. Although seemingly a modern-day piece, Hildegard Bechtler’s set has a 70s minimalist quality that feels like a muted David Hockney painting from his California series with sharp interior and reflective surfaces.

On top of that Icke has added a big screen that displays Danish newsfeeds of this royal family and the approach of Fortinbras’s army (meaning he never appears on stage) as well as images from the various CCTV cameras that first capture the Ghost of Hamlet’s father. Reactions to the Gonzago play and the fencing contest are also shown using video projection. All of this should imply people under constant scrutiny living very public lives, and deals with the difficulty of presenting the larger scale sections in the tiny Almeida space.

But, like last year’s Richard III, the technology is not consistently applied and while spying is a significant part of the play (Claudius and Polonius spy on Hamlet, while Hamlet spies on Claudius) the CCTV isn’t used to create much sense of claustrophobia, while the filming idea feels more about staging issues than integral to the world Icke has created, one that has live streaming of events but people still receive notes on paper and no one appears to have a phone or computer. Its setting, then, is a half-way house between old and new in terms of look, as well as recombining elements from earlier iterations of Hamlet – notably Greg Doran’s 2008 version for the RSC that used mirrored sets, CCTV and filming Claudius to similar effect although here the technology is a decade on.

The technology isn’t much of a distraction and for the most part the audience can concentrate entirely on the performances, when even Tom Gibbons’s semi-permanent soundscape of music and thudding beats thankfully stops to hear the big soliloquies in perfect silence. Scott’s Hamlet connects to a grief and passionate anger that for much of the play barely contains his affecting sobs of despair. The court around him is light and happy, so rather than a pure hero, Scott’s Hamlet becomes the dark and destructive presence that threatens the contentment of those around him. There are moments of wit (and people titter every time they recognise a line) but this is more than a melancholy young man, this is a serious and furiously frenzied Hamlet shouting at the world.

Scott captivates the audience, bringing an energy and ferocity to the production that means the question of Hamlet’s madness remains ambiguous. He clearly gives the role everything he has in a mammoth performance, and when he delivers all the big soliloquies, choosing to engage directly with the audience rather than as dialogues within his own mind, you could hear a pin drop so expertly has he drawn the viewer into the debates, building each speech from frustrated philosophising to rating rages against Claudius, the court and his own ‘blunted purpose’. This Hamlet, wired and on the edge, changes on his return from England but rather than the beatific man we often see, Scott’s Hamlet is resigned to his fate, knowing what will come and letting it play out, as if he has lost whatever fight he had and finally decided ‘not to be’.

The rest of the cast is more mixed however but bring a welcome freshness to Polonius and his children which add to the tragedy of the final moments. So often, productions focus on the royal family with Polonius, Laertes and Ophelia just grist to the mill, unfortunate side-effects in Hamlet’s just quest for vengeance. But here we see them as central to  Hamlet’s own growing madness, a loving and warm family, close and affectionate, unlike his own, that he ultimately destroys – something the audience is asked to linger on in the otherwise dreadful misfire of a ‘heaven-wedding’ ending.

Polonius is usually quite annoying, prattling on only for Hamlet to outwit him. Instead, Peter Wright makes him a loving father, run ragged and highly sympathetic as he delivers news to his royal masters. While the part feels reduced, Wright conveys the notion of a decent and hard-working man looking out for his family which adds genuine sadness to his end. Similarly Ophelia is less fey than usual and the production takes time to create some chemistry with Hamlet while Jessica Brown Findlay delivers the verse quite naturally, although sometimes a little too fast. A minor frustration is her appearance topless in a bath at the back of the stage in a non-verbal scene and is yet another instance of actresses being asked to do something that adds nothing whatsoever to the plot in a production that contains no other nudity. Her madness scenes are less convincing but that is more to do with the way they are presented than her performance, and she too offers a sense of raging grief that reflects Scott’s approach.

Laertes is a small but important role that is often seen as the antithesis of Hamlet’s character. Laertes has greater cause for upset than his former friend, having lost two members of his family, and unlike Hamlet, chooses to act instantly and violently. But with so many hero-Hamlets of late, Laertes is often forgotten, but Luke Thompson brings a nuance to the role which adds an interesting contrast with Scott’s darker Hamlet. While Laertes is comfortably happy and well-loved at the start, Thompson’s return toward the end of the play is a fiery rage of grief and anger – again mirroring Scott’s approach – that makes perfect sense in light of Claudius’s plan. But what is so interesting in this performance is the growing reluctance to see it through, so Thompson’s hands shake, he holds back in the fencing and you see his fear growing as his better nature takes over. It is a very fine performance (the latest in a growing portfolio for the actor) and the mastery of indecision here may set him up well to give his own Hamlet one day.

Less successful however are Claudius and Gertrude, with Angus Wright’s Claudius being virtually without menace. We see them first very much in love at their wedding and for a while we could believe that Hamlet is wrong about his uncle. Maybe Wright is saving his darkness for press night but he hasn’t found the lust for power and the attraction of Claudius yet. He is perhaps miscast, whereas the superb David Rintoul who plays the Ghost and Player King (a neat comment on the potential illusion of Hamlet’s father) could be a considerably more charismatic Claudius. The production also makes the strange decision to have Claudius perform his confessional speech directly to the gun-toting Hamlet rather than have it overheard. But, confessing to Hamlet’s face makes little sense when Hamlet does nothing about it, psychologically he gets the same information and behaves the same way by overhearing it, while being told directly and not shooting him then and there doesn’t quite fit.

Juliet Stevenson’s Gertrude has a little more opacity and we’re never quite sure if she is complicit in the death of her first husband, and indeed whether she loves Hamlet at all. Stevenson hints at both these things, particularly in the opening scene as she shows considerable affection to Laertes but doesn’t touch her son. Yet, these two ideas could run more consistently through the performance if Stevenson wants to add a new interpretation to the Gertrude as Lady Macbeth approach.

There are plenty of unanswered questions in The Almeida’s new Hamlet with lots of visual concepts on show that don’t always tie into the production. Ophelia sports some very bad peroxide hair while Laertes has a visible tattoo on his neck which is never referenced, whether these belong to the actors, are for other roles or are meant to suggest the Polonius family are a bit chavvy is unclear, as is the elongated wedding day timeline at the beginning which upsets the point at which Hamlet’s madness is supposed to begin, or the handover of watches at the end showing that time has run out, which needed to be meaningfully referenced throughout to have any significance here.

Despite its length, this is an engaging and highly watchable production that uses its variable pace to just about keep everyone on-board and fully engaged to the end. Part One is 1 hour and 45 minutes which meanders most, but Part Two at 35 minutes and Part Three at 55 minutes ramp up the drama and pressure very well. Overall the approach is an interesting one, and while like Cumberbatch’s version, the production doesn’t always fully align with its star, there are plenty of fresh ideas and excellent performances that make this highly enjoyable. There are lots of things you could do with four hours, but watching Andrew Scott’s powerful and raging Hamlet is certainly one of them, just prepare for a marathon – ‘the readiness is all’.

Hamlet is at The Almeida until 15 April. The production is largely sold out but day tickets and returns are available from £10. The Almeida also has a series of events, talks and activities in their Hamlet for Free Festival from 10-13 April.

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Twelfth Night – National Theatre

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The National Theatre had a pretty impressive year in 2016 resuming its position as one of London’s most consistent and forward-thinking theatres, mixing reimagined classics with new writing. Under Rufus Norris’s artistic directorship its output has felt fresh, diverse and above all innovative, with Annie Baker’s The Flick, Robert Icke’s cinematic The Red Barn and Ivo van Hove’s eviscerating take on Hedda Gabler standing out in a year of hits. And the future is already full of promise with tickets to the revival of Angels in America selling like a rock concert, and new works like Consent to come in 2017, not to mention a 2018 announcement of Macbeth with Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff, as well as apparently Ralph Fiennes in Anthony and Cleopatra (announced a year ago but no further details), it’s fair to say you now go to the National expecting to be wowed.

But first up for 2017 is a new production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night a perennial Christmas favourite that has nothing to do with the festive season, hence a February opening.  It is clear from the promotional photography that this tale of disguise and unrequited love will largely focus on its comedy characters with Tamsin Greig taking the starring role as the re-gendered Malvolia. And the recasting allows the company to add freshness to an often performed play by playing with notions of sexuality – ideas hinted at in Shakespeare’s text through the frisson between Orsino and Viola when she is disguised as Cesario.

So the plot is an intricate one, starting with a shipwreck that parts twins Viola and Sebastian who both arrive in Illyria thinking the other had perished. Disguised as a boy called Cesario, Viola enters the employ of Duke Orsino and falls in love with him, but Orsino is in love with local noblewoman Olivia, who has foresworn all men. Orsino sends Cesario as messenger but Olivia falls in love with him, not realising its Viola in disguise. Running in parallel, Olivia’s drunken relative Sir Toby Belch and her servants decide to teach the arrogant steward Malvolia a lesson by letting her think Olivia loves her and orchestrate Malvolia’s public humiliation. People are disguised, hearts ache, wires are crossed and hilarity ensues, but Sebastian is still on the island and soon becomes involved in the mix-ups.

The National’s production, which has its press night on Wednesday, is primarily focused on the comedy aspects of the tale which downplays the central romantic stories and partially side-lines the play’s main character Viola. Director Simon Godwin who previously oversaw the brilliantly riotously The Beaux’ Stratagem at the National in 2015 which was a perfectly pitched farce, brings that knowledge to bear on this production of Twelfth Night helping his fine cast to find the levity in Shakespeare’s text while adding plenty of humorous physical and visual comedy touches. The result hasn’t yet meshed into a finely tuned show but, only a few performances in, there are a series of nicely realised comic scenarios which should link more seamlessly as the cast settle into the rhythm.

Aside from the cast, the real star of this version is the ever inventive Soutra Gilmour’s rotating fold-out pyramid set which simply transports the players to various settings relatively smoothly, while offering a slightly dreamlike feel. It starts as the bow of Viola and Sebastian’s ship steered into the rocks that set the story on its way, before triangular segments fold out into Olivia’s glass panelled villa, bricked street scenes, Olivia’s garden and even a gay bar with singing drag Queen – crooning Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ speech. There’s also a large staircase leading to the top which gives the actors something to run around on but also a place to overhear or spy on the action. There were a couple of sticky moments when bits of the set malfunctioned forcing the actor’s to improvise, and the various flaps need to be walked into place by visible technicians, but Gilmour’s 30s meets 70s meets modern interpretation is fascinating, and she has amassed an eclectic body of work.

Gender-swapping within the cast is seamlessly done and makes perfect sense in the context of Godwin’s production. Leading them is Tamsin Greig’s Malvolia who initially puts you in mind of Shakespeare’s other great verbose and fussy attendant, Polonius from Hamlet. Grieg’s first appearance is as a severe and dark presence, clean black bob, and starkly dressed in plain shirt and culottes. The overall appearance is of an ogerish governess, humourless and unimpressed with those around her but certain that her own thoughts and actions are perfect behaviour. That all changes brilliantly on receipt of the faked letter from Olivia and the big reveal of Malvolia in the yellow stockings in part two, which has to be seen rather than spoiled, is a brilliantly timed piece of comedy which Greig relishes superbly. It’s a fun and wide-ranging performance that pins the show together really well.

Equally entertaining is Phoebe Fox’s almost entirely comic Olivia whose over-eager declarations of love and single-minded pursuit of Cesario are a real highlight. Fox brings initial restraint to Olivia, who is in mourning for her recently deceased father and brother, and is clearly a determined, strong young woman who bats away Orsino’s attentions and is admirably unwavering. Yet with the arrival of Cesario Fox utilises these character traits to great effect in trying to capture the object of her affection, as well as making the most of any opportunity to show a giggly or more suggestive aspect of the character.

Completing the comic set is the excellent Tim McMullen as Sir Toby Belch, Daniel Rigby as Sir Andrew Augecheek, Doon Mackichan as a gender-swapped fool Feste and Niki Wardley as Maria Olivia’s chambermaid who masterminds the plan against Malvolia. It’s a nicely delineated group but together love revelry and drive much of the comedy forward, with McMullen –sartorially channelling Laurence Llewelyn Bowen – and Wardley in particularly making an excellent team as the partying nobleman and the cheeky maid who takes control of him.

The lovers do get pretty short shrift in this version of the play and Orsino’s appearances which bookend the play make it difficult to understand how quickly he transfers his affection from Olivia to Viola. Oliver Chris’s Orsino is a bit of a playboy at the start, driving his sports car on stage to overtly attract Olivia with generic flowers but he genuinely seems devoted as he later mopes through a party-scene. With the emphasis on the comic, we get less chance to see the relationship with Cesario / Viola tip over into something more romantic.

Tamara Lawrance’s Viola is satisfyingly tomboyish making her male disguise convincing and, a difficult thing in modern versions of Shakespeare’s plays, almost believable. And while she hasn’t quite captured the depth of the romance, it’s still early days and that will come. Finally Daniel Ezra is an excellent Sebastian, suitably perplexed by the mistaken identity dramas and with plenty of swagger to give the fight scenes credibility. But there is a hint at Sebastian’s homosexuality in scenes with ship’s captain Antonio and at the gay bar which aren’t followed though when he becomes embroiled in the story with Olivia.

It’s still early in the run and with a couple of previews left before press night there is time to smooth the flow and link more consistently between the high comic moments and the rest of the play which will make its long three hour run time skip more quickly. There are lots of lovely comic performances which carry it along very nicely and, Gilmour’s spectacular set aside, while the show may not have the wow of recent National Theatre productions or build to the farcical pitch it aspires to, this version of Twelfth Night is an entertaining and well-staged evening with plenty of fun moments that keep the audience laughing.

Twelfth Night is at The National Theatre until 13 May and tickets start at £15.  It will be broadcast live to cinemas on 6 April, and is also part of the Friday Rush scheme, offering tickets for the following week at £20 – available from 1pm on Fridays. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Review of the Year and What to See in 2017

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Very few of us will be sorry to see the back of 2016, politically and socially it’s been a tough year all round. But it hasn’t been all bad with London’s cultural output thriving in uncertain times and at the start of 2016 there was much to anticipate. While 2015 theatre was all about five big male performance, 2016 was a time for some of our leading female actors to take to the stage with powerful productions of The Deep Blue Sea at the National Theatre with Helen McCrory on devastating form as Rattigan’s desperate heroine, while The Young Vic’s Yerma cemented Billie Piper’s growing status as a very fine stage performer, and closing the year, The National’s innovative Hedda Gabler with a brutally savage turn from Ruth Wilson as the suffocated society wife.

Some other good but not perfect productions also heralded some noteworthy for roles for Gemma Chang in Jamie Lloyd’s exciting take on Pinter’s The Homecoming, for Juliette Stevenson and Lia Williams in Mary Stuart (review to follow next week), Sharon D Clarke in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Amber Riley in Dreamgirls. Not to be outdone notable male performances including Ralph Fiennes in The Master Builder which was one of his finest ever stage roles, shamefully overlooked by the Olivier committee, as well as the lead in a notable Richard III at the Almeida. Later in the year Kenneth Branagh defied comparisons to deliver a moving and powerful interpretation of The Entertainer while Ken Stott and Reece Shearsmith found new depth in The Dresser, not forgetting Kit Harrington cavorting about in his pants and making a decent job of the leading role in Jamie Lloyd’s controversial but resonant Faustus. But my favourite was Mark Strong’s incredible performance in The Red Barn which earned a first professional five-star review from me.

For theatre 2017 is already promising a host of hotly anticipated male roles and having opened 2016 with another chance to see his magnificent Richard II at the Barbican, David Tennant returns to the Wyndhams stage in March for Patrick Marber’s contemporary adaptation of Don Juan in Soho which promises a great deal. Also in March Daniel Radcliffe returns to London in an Old Vic production of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead while in April star-director Ivo van Hove’s version of Obsession opens at the Barbican with film-star Jude Law. The National also revives its production of Angels in America with Russell Tovey which will be one of the big openers in 2017.  But the show to watch next year is a hotly anticipated version of Hamlet at the Almeida which opens in late February staring Andrew Scott, Juliet Stevenson, Jessica Brown Findlay and rising star Luke Thompson. Comparisons with Sherlock co-star Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet are inevitable but the Almeida is a much smaller space and Robert Icke’s vision may yet surprise us.

Art and exhibitions have noted a major change in presentation and style since the 2015 Alexander McQueen show which really altered the way items are presented. Utilising the success of this the V&A called on their design experience to present a lively examination of 60s popular and political culture in Records and Rebels which you can still see a little while longer. In a similar vein Vogue celebrated its 100th birthday with an excellent exhibition of its fashion photography which emphasised its role in reflecting the changing world around the magazine, while the Barbicans show about The Vulgar collected some excellent exhibits but misused them in over-intellectualised structure. And Somerset House celebrated fan-art inspired by the weird and wonderful world of Kubrick films.

From July the anniversary of the Battle of the Somme offered two of London’s most successful shows focused on very different aspects of conflict. The Science Museum’s Wounded: Conflict, Casualties and Care was an eye-opening and well researched examination of a little known aspect of the First Wold War, while the Imperial War Museum comes very close to show of the year with its excellent Real to Reel exhibition on war movies. That accolade actually goes to the Royal Academy for its Painting the Modern Garden show which collated so many beautiful paintings that wandering from crowded room to crowded room was never less than a joy.

Looking ahead and the headline show for 2017 is the Tate’s David Hockney retrospective from February which is set to unite his UK and US work for the first time. After a stunning 2012 show at the Royal Academy, a proper examination of Hockney’s work is long overdue and this is sure to be a big hit for Tate Britain after their disappointing Paul Nash and Empire shows. This will be followed by a show on the impressionists in London from November.

Meanwhile other American art comes into focus with big shows on post-1930s art at the Royal Academy from February and Pop Art and the American Dream at the British Museum from March. In February Kensington Palace opens a guaranteed money-spinning crowd-pleaser with a showcase of Princess Diana’s dresses set to run for two years, while at the tail end of next year the Queen’s Gallery launches its examination of Charles II’s art.

London’s 2016 Film Festival was once again lived up to anticipation and seems to be going from strength to strength. As well as the Amy Adams double bill of linguistic sci-fi adventure Arrival and Tom Ford’s stylishly dark morality tale Nocturnal Animals which have already opened in the UK as well as Andrea Arnold’s superb American Honey, the Film Festival also showcased a number of significant films due to open here in the early part of 2017. Best among and them already earning countless award nominations is Damien Chazelle’s La La Land which is in cinemas from 13 January and is an exceptional clash of the classic Hollywood musical and modern grittier experiences of trying to make it in LA. It is beautifully realised and its stars, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, have never been better.

Out in the same week is Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea (review to follow shortly), a sensitive portrayal of grief and guilt with its stars Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams certain to dominate the acting honours in February. Although full release dates are not yet announced theatre director Benedict Andrews’s adaptation of David Harrower’s play Blackbird, now retitled Una and starring Rooney Mara deals with the difficult issue of abuse and its consequences. Although the film’s approach does undermine its purpose to a degree it will create talking points on release, and a review will follow when that date is announced. Finally Adam Smith’s first film Trespass Against Us, starring Brendan Gleeson and Michael Fassbender is scheduled for 3 March, with both playing members of a Gloucestershire traveller community, replete with local accents, who account for much of the local crime rate. Premiering at the Film Festival, it offers some impressive low-budget car chases and great black comedy moments, as well as fine performances from its top-notch cast.

So as we swiftly kick 2016 away it may not have been a great year but it has offered a number of cultural highs. With plenty of potentially excellent theatre, exhibitions and films in the works, there’s much to look forward to in the year ahead.

Reviews are posted every Monday at 12.30pm.Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.


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