Category Archives: Shakespeare

Running Wilde: How to Manage a Theatre Season

Oscar Wilde Season - An Ideal Husband

As Classic Spring’s year-long Oscar Wilde season comes to a close, its timely to reflect on what it has achieved. Every theatre describes its forthcoming programme as a season, loosely tying together the varied collection of plays it will present in a 4-6 month period, releasing tickets for them all simultaneously. Here, though, a season refers to the external take-over of a theatre building by a Company formed specifically around a particular individual or to celebrate the work of one writer – as the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company and Classic Spring have done. Aside from its commercial purpose to attract as many patrons as possible, has London’s second major theatre season in three years really added anything to our perception of Oscar Wilde and his work?

This time last year Dominic Dromgoole’s newly-formed Company was preparing for its opening show – A Woman of No Importance – and promising that the programme would reposition Wilde in the theatre landscape, allowing us to view his writing and contribution with fresh eyes. With the rather lacklustre and ill-conceived version of The Importance of Being Earnest showered with largely 2* reviews and acres of disappointment, has Dromgoole failed where Branagh arguably succeeded? And what should a successful theatre season actually look like?

  • Play Selection is Crucial

With only four or five available spots each limited to an 8-10 week run, there are three important criteria for deciding which productions to include in the season. First is artistic value, the second commercial viability and the third variety. Classic Spring’s choices, including the two plays mentioned above along with Lady Windermere’s Fan and An Ideal Husband easily demonstrated the value of Wilde’s work, presenting his best-loved plays which guaranteed a healthy box-office return. Rarely off stage, Wilde has audiences flocking to the West End most years, a guaranteed crowd-pleaser each time.

Yet, with a season dedicated to one writer, predominantly working in one genre, variety is more difficult to achieve through the selection of work – how the forthcoming Pinter season manages this will be an interesting point of comparison. Branagh’s season could more easily offer a broad selection just by having a much wider pool of possible material, but it shrewdly combined the classics with modern drama, comedy and tragedy across the run. Yet, both seasons within their own confines gave dedicated audiences the chance to see work they would know well alongside more unusual or less-frequently performed pieces. Branagh’s curveball was the hilarious farce The Painkiller, in which our noble knight dropped his trousers, while Classic Spring cleverly opened with the lesser-performed A Woman of No Importance which offered the chance to see the more serious and emotional side of Wilde beneath the polished veneer and witty epigrams.

  • Vary the Presentation

Play selection might offer a Company all kinds of opportunities to present different types of production from different eras, but variety in staging and design can add considerably to arguments about the ongoing relevance of particular writers and their ability to draw on the consistent human emotions and behaviours that defy historical era. While each play is a standalone piece true to the purpose of the writer, a season should think more broadly about the visual effect it wants to create to offer variation and possibly even innovation for the repeat customer – it will be interesting to see the approach taken to setting and tone by the forthcoming Pinter season where up to four separate short plays will be presented on the same night.

Branagh’s season managed this well, often using the same design team across several plays, and presented five very different but thematically unified worlds to the audience. Running in repertory, viewers were taken from the magical pseudo-nineteenth-century kingdom of Leontes in The Winter’s Tale to the chaotic 1950s touring theatre of Harlequinade, with its faux medieval references in the costumes. The Painkiller, set in a Boutique Hotel, was a modern split screen with a sharp-suited assassin, while Romeo and Juliet referenced the monochrome glamour of 1960s La Dolce Vita Italy, before faded 1950s working-class Britain became the backdrop to The Entertainer. Each play was unique and individually designed to take the audience back and forth in time, but the human tragedy and delusion at the heart of every piece was always crystal clear, providing a unity across the work.

By contrast, the Wilde season seemed frustratingly unadventurous, despite different directors and designers separately taking charge of the four plays. Together they produced a remarkably unvarying and one-note portrayal of late nineteenth-century grandeur. Audiences have a passion for traditional Wilde, so it would be perfectly understandable that two or even three of the shows would want to retain their period-specific focus, but the hope that at least one would take a more creative path was soon dashed.

Of all the work presented in this season, An Ideal Husband most lends itself to taking a more unusual approach to characters and scenarios that more obviously reference the modern day. Most audience members may not regularly dine with the aristocracy, but politicians with dark secrets about the origins of their power being blackmailed by unscrupulous outsiders with plenty to gain is a recognisable and relatable construct. It becomes even more prescient when we consider that the inflexibility of the black and white morale code that Wilde toys with through the character of Gertrude, and which now reflects our Post-World War cultural love-affair with the anti-hero where a bad deed done for the right reason is forgivable and even desirably human.

Traditionalists will argue that to see Wilde performed well is always welcome, and An Ideal Husband was a particular highlight, but what is a season for if not to offer a creative opportunity to see the work afresh. One key way to do that is through the setting, imagining why the play has survived so well and what it has to say – Wilde’s writing is more than a string of funny lines, there is something about the fundamental human condition that runs through his work, which the repetitive framing failed to satisfactorily draw out.

  • Have a Point of View and a Grand Finale

Knowing what you want audiences to take-away from the work is the next key criteria, and strongly relates to the arguments above. As a collective body of work, what is it that the Company wants to say about the writer or the specific collection of plays that they have chosen to present? Or is the whole enterprise a cynical money-making scheme? Classic Spring’s original intent was to celebrate ‘proscenium playwrights’, rediscovering their ‘original brilliant wit and bold social critique,’ and across the four plays it is the former that has been the focus.

Emphasising the ways in which the work ‘still speak to us piercingly and profoundly today’ has been less clear, and after the emotionalism of A Woman of No Importance and the allusions we drew for ourselves in An Ideal Husband the productions themselves haven’t radically repositioned Wilde as a political commentator or collectively highlighted the foibles of social expectation, status and behaviour that could have drawn the four shows together. We enjoyed some of them as individual productions, but with a changing cast, director and designer they all felt independent of one another, and we haven’t learnt anything new from them as a collective experience.

The Wilde season built-up to The Importance of Being Earnest, rightly saving its most famous piece for the big finish. The end of the season is the opportunity to draw all of the strands together in the one production that visualises the season’s original themes, sending audiences away with a clear sense of its purpose and eager to see what the Company does next. Alas, The Importance of Being Earnest was a damp-squib, easily the worst of the set, an overly-forced disappointment receiving a heap of poor reviews. With little that was truly remarkable or insightful, where Classic Spring goes from here is hard to say.

By contrast, the Branagh season generate its own momentum, taking risks in the choice of production and style, while drawing the strands together in a loose but considered way. Thematically it focused on the theatrical life and particularly a desperation and delusion that prevented characters seeing their situations or themselves as they really are. From the faded starlets of Harlequinade to the star-crossed lovers driven to despair by family rivalry, audiences were able to form a picture across the series, culminating in the ultimate portrait of stale desperation in The Entertainer. A theatre season has to be more than the sum of its parts, we can love the individual plays but, through staging or unusual show selection, it should develop connections and insights for an audience that didn’t exist before.

  • Venue and Casting

Finding the right space is often more about availability than design, but in choosing the Vaudeville Classic Spring added an extra dimension to the work, meeting one of their key purposes of the season to stage shows in the place the playwright created them. Along with the added frisson, the Vaudeville also works for audiences with good sight lines from most seats. The Garrick was more frustrating for Branagh fans with a significant curve in the upper levels that obscured half of the stage, while the stalls seating is insufficiently raked for viewing.

Both seasons attracted plenty of famous faces guaranteed to draw audiences with Freddie and Edward Fox, Eve Best, Sophie Thompson and well-loved comedian Jennifer Saunders embodying some of Oscar Wilde’s most well-loved creations. Arguably by retaining some continuity of cast and crew between shows, Branagh’s approach had a deeper purpose, offering a form of repertory training for emerging talent on and off-stage, while providing platforms for actors fresh from drama school to work alongside theatrical titans including Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi, Greta Scacchi, and Branagh himself, as well as up-and-coming actors including Lily James, Richard Madden, Jessie Buckley and Tom Bateman who had previously or would go on to work again with the notably loyal actor-director.

  • Critical Data

While the Critic no longer wields the make-or-break power they once held as audiences draw on a range of information when selecting a show, the reviews are still a valuable indicator of a production’s value in the wider landscape. Looking at the star ratings apportioned to each show in the Wilde and Branagh seasons by the leading publications is very revealing, and, in terms of average critical acclaim, The Branagh Theatre Company outperformed Classic Spring overall.

Looking at averages for The Times, The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Independent, Time Out, The Stage, WhatsonStage and The Reviews Hub reveals:*

Season Averages

Only An Ideal Husband earned 3.5 stars or more, while three of Branagh’s shows achieved that. And despite a 5* outlier from Whatsonstage, The Importance of Being Earnest only received a damming 2.8 stars, Branagh’s lowest scoring show being Romeo and Juliet with 3.3 stars. The critics clearly found less to love in the Wilde season for some of the reasons mentioned above.

The dedicated theatre season is slowly becoming a notable and much-anticipated feature of West End scheduling, but running one is never as straightforward as it may seem. Putting on a series of shows loosely strung together has lessened the impact of the Wilde season, missing an opportunity to offer the promised new perspective. With a 6-month season dedicated to Harold Pinter about to begin over at the theatre named after him, Jamie Lloyd and his theatre company can learn some lessons from Classic Spring. With plenty of star names, rarely seen work and Lloyd’s particular touch, let’s hope London’s next big theatre season is one to remember.

The Classic Spring Oscar Wilde Season concludes with The Importance of Being Earnest until 20 October. The Pinter at the Pinter Season begins in September with tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1

* The full data from the critics:

Critics Data

Key – Tm – The Times, Tl -The Telegraph, Gd – The Guardian, In – The Independent, St – The Stage, TO – Time Out, Wh – WhatsonStage, RH – The Reviews Hub

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Othello – The Globe

Othello - The Globe

The return of Mark Rylance to The Globe main stage is the lynchpin of Michelle Terry’s first season as Artistic Director and luring her predecessor back to play Iago in a new version of Othello is a major coup. It’s been a quiet season for Terry so far, not glowing but largely positive reviews for The Globe’s return to its more traditional approach to staging Shakespeare’s work, divested of the divisive sets and sound systems that defined the Emma Rice era. No one loves the traditional Globe more than Rylance and his return can be seen as an affirmation of Terry’s vision. With so much collective experience of staging Shakespeare in this theatre, and the skills of an actor at the helm who in 2016 managed the rare feat of winning an Oscar and being nominated for an Olivier in the same year, why is this Othello not better?

Shakespeare’s enduring story of sexual and political jealousy seems like an easy win for The Globe. Othello is one of the more accessible tragedies; there are no intangible musings on life and death or need to understand how supernatural forces affect human agency, instead Othello is driven by the simple idea of one man deceptively and invidiously poisoning the happiness of another. While the romance with Desdemona is best remembered, the play’s central focus on the misguided friendship between Othello and Iago holds the story together and focuses the expanding drama. Often in Shakespeare, the audience holds knowledge that one or more of the characters is denied, we know when someone is in disguise or when a murder has occurred. In Othello, we are party to Iago’s plot to destroy his friend and Commander, so Shakespeare deliberately makes the viewer both complicit and powerless bystanders in order to build a sense of inevitability in the destruction of the characters and their world.

But like Macbeth the success of this tragedy depends on how effectively their confined scenario is created and how well the psychological development of the characters is managed. To truly believe in Iago’s dastardly plan to make Othello mistrust his wife, the audience must be convinced by his motivation, to understand why he feels aggrieved in the first place and crucially why he chooses this particular path above seeking alternative forms of revenge. Finally, there must also be a sense of the social structure in which they are operating – the separation between male and female characters, the ability to prevent individuals from encountering each other and revealing the truth – which explain how Iago is able to maintain his falsehoods without fear of discovery.

The Globe’s new production is yet to make the most of that audience relationship, building a conspiratorial alliance between stage and viewer that is so vital to understand and engage with the play. Whatever route the Company has chosen is not being effectively communicated, so it becomes difficult to understand why individuals behave as they do and what exactly is at stake. There are several reasons for this; first, there is no clear vision for this Othello and none of the key questions have been answered by the production. It is set in a somewhat ambiguous location with an amusing Russian Revolution meets New Romantic aesthetic, allowing everyone to swirl around in embroidered gowns, woollen trench-coats and berets, but the social and military limitations of Othello’s world are inconclusive.

You never feel, as you should, that Iago’s schemes are able to succeed because the men exist within the confines of a geographical army base and must observe the restrictions of military hierarchy. Thus, unable to daily socialise with the people of Cyprus, or encounter anyone outside army life other than in the play’s early scenes, or able to speak openly to one another while on duty, the suspicion the Iago seeds can take root and fester. The villain knows he would be soon discovered in gossipy society, but within this structure he is able to control the ebb and flow of information reaching him commander’s ears.

Likewise, the physical separation of men and women in the play is deliberate and, by preventing contact between husband and wife for much of the central part of the action, Shakespeare ensures that Desdemona has no opportunity to allay these fears or abut the false accusations until Othello is already past the point of no return. Designer Jonathan Fensom and Director Claire van Kampen never make this clear in The Globe’s interpretation, the audience doesn’t notice the shift in location nor how this creates a new psychological environment in which Iago’s betrayal can freely operate.

While The Globe seems to have returned to a minimal no-sets policy, this has resulted in some curious directional decisions which become equally alienating for the audience. In the opening scene, Iago and Roderigo discuss Othello’s recent marriage, but the actors deliver their lines while circling the stage pillars in rapid figures of eight. This constant movement, and the subsequent breathlessness of the actors, is a bizarre feature of the entire show, with characters frequently moving from one side of the stage to the other mid-sentence, never quite letting the core moments settle or resonate. Perhaps without a set, the space feels intimidating from the stage, but the result is a too frantic production that denies any chance of stillness or the opportunity to build sufficient tension that allow the audience to absorb crucial plot developments.

Utilising the full stage to ensure all sides of the auditorium can see and hear what is happening is great, and there’s nothing more frustrating than all of the action occurring on the opposite side to your seat, but here the constant movement proves counter-productive, actively undermining both the visual and auditory experience of the show. Even from the pit, at relatively close quarters to the stage, it is difficult to hear every word, particularly when half sentences are interrupted by the actor’s movement to another location – presumably the sound quality in the upper levels of the theatre will be hugely problematic. A more effective approach would be to base entire scenes on either side of the space which still balances the action without the whirly confusion of people inexplicably marching up and down. It is a fast-paced play, but this impedes rather than heightens our connection with it, suggesting a fear of exposure that a bare stage may create.

Rylance’s Iago is one of the most anticipated performances of the year, so it’s curious that it should be so unremarkable. With a couple of previews remaining, Rylance hasn’t taken a particular point of view on the character that ties the recitation of the lines to any specific decision about Iago’s motives or purpose. This surprising lack of resolution has much in common with Rory Kinnear’s Macbeth (himself a remarkable Iago in Nicholas Hytner’s 2013 production), in that neither actor seems entirely comfortable in the role or able to make sense of the conflicting ambitions and fears that explain the character.

What Iago is doing in this play and why, we never really find out. Is he a sociopath enjoying the destruction of people around him for its own sake, or are there more complicated jealousies at work? Kinnear made it clear that being overlooked for promotion turned his Iago against his former friend, but although Rylance’s Iago quickly mumbles something about a rumoured affair between his own wife, Amelia, and Othello, and some attraction to Desdemona, we’re never told why he’s doing it. This is compounded by the unusual speed with which Rylance is delivering the lines, the rapidity of which undermines the clarity and prevents us from understanding the character’s aims, losing that important sense of confederacy between the villain and his audience.

It is quite an unexpected performance, and while the show is clearly attempting to maintain a sense of pace, of events rapidly spiralling out of control that unusually for The Globe brings the show in at around two and half hours, it doesn’t result in a real understanding of the character or his motivation. Anyone who has seen Rylance before will know he is a sensitive and accomplished performer of Shakespeare, he loves to play to the crowd while able to extract the subtle nuances and humanity of his characters, which makes this surprisingly workman-like approach quite inexplicable. Even an underpowered Rylance performance is better than most, and will certainly please his fans, but you’re not feeling a huge investment from him in the role – it’s as though he’s barely there.

Despite the uncertain approach to showing themes and purpose, both André Holland as Othello and Jessica Warbeck as Desdemona fair rather better. While the lack of resolution around them hampers our perspective on Othello’s responses, Holland has a command of the stage that suits the social status of his character. This Othello is confident and comfortable in himself cutting the worries of race and prejudice that other interpretations have emphasised, although Holland uses his natural American accent to convey a sense of ‘otherness’ that still sets him apart from a more diverse British cast. That happiness with his lot means the rapid decline into distrust and anger seems more dramatic. Holland’s Othello suggests a respectful and deep love for Desdemona that feels like a credible marriage, while their final confrontation is loaded with danger and tension.

Desdemona can be a rather thankless part, and even some of the best productions can be dragged down by an insipid interpretation that leaves you wondering why everyone is losing their head over her. Yet here, Warbeck has a rational strength that makes her a worthy match for the army commander, delivering her lines quite naturally without any of the shrill simpering that blights over versions, and making her all the more sympathetic, an innocent fatality in a political game. While it would be useful to see some contact with Aaron Pierre’s Cassio, at least to give Iago’s rumour some grounding, the rest of the cast lack direction. Cassio is likeable, while Sheila Atim’s Emilia eventually has her moment of resistance, but there is too little ambiguity in the overall show design to allow us to understand why Cassio is an obvious target to be Iago’s fall guy (rather than Rodrigo who openly expresses a desire for Desdemona), and what hold he has over his wife to force her complicity.

With press night imminent, there seems to be much to do if this version of Othello is to shine, and although any production can have an off-night similar reports are emerging of rushed lines and audio difficulties across the early run. As it stands, if you have never seen Othello before then this watchable version conveys the basic story, but it never gets to grips with the dark forces at the heart of the play, or the carefully constructed machinations of its villain. The Globe can do better than this, and Rylance certainly knows how the power of this writer in this theatre can be an illuminating combination. It needs to decide what it wants to say and give its star the time to deliver the performance we all know he is capable of.

Othello is at The Globe until 13 October and tickets start at £5 for standing and £22 seated. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


King Lear – Duke of York’s Theatre

Ian McKellen in King Lear

Our collective theatre memory is full of remarkable performances, whenever a show is revived someone in the production or at least one of the critics will refer to a definitive performance they once saw from a great actor of the past, a benchmark for every subsequent version we see. This is particularly true for Shakespeare, so as we continue to revere Olivier, Gielgud and the rest, audiences may begin to think they will never see anything to match them. It’s all nonsense of course, the stand-out performances in any era are often only judged so in retrospect and modern theatre offers much that will be remembered. But once in a while you know you’re in the presence of greatness and Ian McKellen’s King Lear will be talked about for years to come.

Shakespeare’s plays are eternally relevant, whatever the external socio-political circumstances of the times, they fit, and thus King Lear comes around with considerable regularity. It’s a difficult play to pace correctly and can sometimes feel overly ponderous or meandering. By extension the star power of whoever play’s Lear can also drown out the surround cast, diluting the important political and dynastic machinations that drive the plot.

No such worries in this carefully controlled and cohesive transfer from the Chichester Festival Theatre, the latest of their programme to come into town, in which Director Jonathan Munby gives equal weighting to the three elements of the plot, tempering the extraordinary charisma of his leading man by generating interest in the play’s contingent storylines – the grasping power of Regan and Goneril, and the destruction of Gloucester’s family.

The corrupting nature of power and its association with ensuing madness are frequent themes across many of Shakespeare’s political and tragic plays. Macbeth violently seizes power and loses his sanity, Hamlet’s balance is disturbed by his Uncle’s equally aggressive dispatch of the rightful King, while Coriolanus’s delusional obsession with his own popularity leads to tyranny. This version of King Lear uses his faulty decision to share his kingdom as the very essence of his madness. The poor use of power is a symptom of what’s to come rather than his subsequent rejection, placing the monarch in a web of intrigue that seemed always waiting to ensnare him.

With so many shouty Lear’s in recent years, it’s refreshing to see an interpretation that’s considerably more varied, drawing out the sensitive and gentle aspects of lost identity to temper the fewer, and here more unexpected, moments of rage and cruelty. There is a real honesty and sensitivity in the way Lear’s madness is presented, and, as anyone who has lived with dementia sufferers will know, there is huge variety in mood and interaction across any single day. Moments of perfect lucidity are common, intermingled with calm loops of memory and confusion about timelines, while the flashes of bitter anger and frustration pass as rapidly and vigorously as they emerged.

You see all of this in McKellen’s performance, and as he gives away his lands there are couple of small contortions of the face in which Lear struggles to retain his train of thought, and overwhelming emotion tries to force its way up his throat like reflux. This Lear does rage but only rarely, when he is unable to process the responses of those around him or his own feelings. The bitter curses he heaps on Goneril are all the more shocking for seeming to come from nowhere, one minute a reasonable conversation, the next an invective on sterility, before fading once more to a quieter resignation. You see this change of weather pass across McKellen’s face, a clear and subtle impression of those shifting faculties in his mind that become increasingly pitiable, rather than the result of his hateful tyranny. This is a Lear who cannot control what is happening to him and the result is very moving.

This softer approach also makes sense of the notion of injustice that plagues the King throughout the play, and the obsessive way his mind returns again and again to the clawing ingratitude of his two eldest daughters, reiterating the idea of this as a trigger rather than the sole cause of his decline. The melancholic sorrow with which McKellen’s Lear references the cause of his undoing implies the personal loss of a father’s deluded love for his ungrateful children rather than the more bombastic approaches to the character that emphasis the loss of sovereignty. This Lear sees the Duchesses of Cornwall and Albany for what they really are, and it breaks him.

McKellen is so quiet as Lear, with so much of his performance and emotion expressed in small contained movements, a tiny and frail human unable to fight against the elements and fates stacked against him. This stripping of kingship to reveal the fallible man below is something Shakespeare explored many times – not least in Henry V’s pre-battle qualms – and McKellen draws on that to considerable effect to show the easy ruin of a man whose anointed greatness is no barrier to pain, destitution and lovelessness.

McKellen is so memorable in this role because he slowly introduces Lear’s metamorphosis, cracking the surface of the monarch so chinks of confused mind start to show through the performance until only fragments of the true Lear are left, disparate and near unreachable. When early on he lingers a beat too long on a comment about treating Cordelia badly, it is so small a remark you almost miss it, but it reveals everything about the slow tearing at his heart and conscience that McKellen uses to rake across the mind of his character, a constant sense of thoughts in flux and flutter.

Despite his considerable star power, McKellen’s collaborative approach keeps the play perfectly in balance, leaving room for the intricate parallel narratives that reflect his own trajectory and allowing other characters equal space to shine, not least Luke Thompson’s Edgar driven to feign madness away from Court when his reputation is maligned by his base-born half-brother. Thompson’s star has been steadily rising for some time with notable roles in numerous classical productions, including a fresh take on Laertes in Robert Icke’s 2017 Hamlet where his approach mirrored the fatal indecision of Andrew Scott’s protagonist.

The role of Edgar can sometimes be too overplayed, to exuberantly mad when he assumes the name of Tom. Instead, Thompson uses his experience of Hamlet to provide a counterpoint to Lear’s decline, but with more stage time than his previous roles, this part gives him scope to display a range of skills. First seen as a clean-cut hero in appropriate military dress, attending on the pomp and ceremony of Lear’s Court, the panicked Edgar hides himself in the believable feigned madness of Tom, adopting three distinct accents to delineate the various personalities he assumes, including a very passable Scottish brogue as Tom.

There is also a vigorous and well executed fight scene in the play’s final moments as Edgar tries to disarm his knife-wielding brother in hand-to-hand combat, while Thompson also brings to bear all the tenderness and emotional sensitivity that Edgar feels for the destroyed parallel figures of his own father, Gloucester, and his plagued former monarch. He credible assumes the role of saviour, a good honest man whose moral rectitude and kind heart wins the respect of the audience and his kingdom.

There is a semi-religious concept of morality that runs through Director Jonathan Munby’s production, and aside from Edgar the only core player left standing is Anthony Howell’s Albany (who previously worked with Thompson on The Globe’s Julius Caesar), a man betrayed by his wife but presented as upstanding enough to retain his life and presumably the country. Claire Price as Goneril and Kirsty Bushell as Regan deliberately make the sisters initially more reasonable and less caricatured than other productions often do. They both appear modest and stately in declaring their love for their father, but power corrupts them. Price is a despairing country gentlewoman exasperated by her cantankerous parent, while Bushell’s more glamorous Regan has a potent sexually charged relationship with her husband (Daniel Rabin) that seems to quite naturally tip into sadism.

Like Hamlet, King Lear is a double tragedy and both plays show an ordinary family destroyed by its proximity to the throne, innocent casualties of wider political games. The Gloucester subplot is often the most poignant, particularly when the Royal Family are portrayed as unlikable tyrants, and Danny Webb’s Gloucester carefully draws-out all the emotion and sympathy the role can offer. The famous eye gouging scene is brutal as ever, but the clifftop despair and regret for his mistakes are made quite tenderly. As his scheming bastard son, James Corrigan is suitably villainous and calculating, easily pulling the strings of those around him to serve his own advancement.

Munby’s production is still a lengthy affair at around three and a half hours, but all the elements of the story are so well knitted together that it takes on its own momentum, even with a lengthy two hour run to the only interval. But there is a consistent vision for the show which balances and reflects the pitch of the performances, presenting a semi-military Royal state, not dissimilar from our own, that revels in its Court rituals as well its country pursuits. Designer Paul Wills surrounds the stage with a semi-circle of Jacobean panelling, and, in Goneril’s house, presents a dinner party full of men in country tweeds, a macho shooting party that looks, and behaves, like The Riot Club.

The first part of the show is performed on a blood red circle of carpet that becomes soaked in rain water which the actors must slosh around on, as though wading in their own wickedness. Events reach their crisis in an abattoir complete with carcasses and severed animal heads where Gloucester loses his eyes before the interval, but later as redemption and moral correction dominate the story, the circle is made white and the panelling peels back to reveal white walls. The carefully considered symbolism of the staging is subtle but reveals the slow unravelling of privilege, a monarchy wiped out and evil purged from the land.

Unusually, there is still more than a week of preview performances before Press Night, but this Chichester transfer has hit its stride early. After the scramble for tickets earlier this year, hour-long queues, having seats selected for you based on pay bands and crashing websites, just getting to the checkout may have seemed like a miracle, but it was worth it.  King Lear has long been a test for actors of a certain age, but the focus on the star playing the declining monarch can under-power the rest of the story. It’s a relief to see a production that tightens its core, with Munby giving equal weight to each strand so as to build proper momentum. A memorable interpretation with a theatre superstar giving one of his finest and most generous performances.

 King Lear is at the Duke of York’s Theatre until 3 November and tickets start at £25. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Macbeth – National Theatre

Macbeth, National Theatre

Back in 2016 the Royal Shakespeare Company celebrated the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth with the televised variety show Shakespeare Live. In a lacklustre event, the chance pairing of Anne-Marie Duff and Rory Kinnear performing a scene from Macbeth was a highlight, leading to calls for them to appear in a full-length version of the play. Almost two years later, those calls have been answered by the National Theatre whose new production is one of their most anticipated shows of the year. But despite its enduring popularity, Macbeth is a slippery beast requiring a clear vision for interpreting its complex balance of supernatural influences, human ambition and evil. Many more versions fail than succeed, so does that mean Macbeth is the most difficult Shakespeare play to stage well?

Macbeth is far more than an action-packed story of murder and mayhem, and is one of Shakespeare’s most psychological plays. The central character takes a convoluted path through the story that takes him from loyalty and fealty at the start of the play, through ambition and murder, to doubt, insecurity and even mental delusion that grow into monstrous tyranny. Then, increasingly numbed by the events he sets in motion, Macbeth’s inner drive collapses as he gives himself over to his inevitable doom. It is by no means a linear path, and like a perfect waltz, the perfect Macbeth must contain rise and fall that guides the audience through the muddles of his mind.

Motivation is key to unlocking the play, and understanding why the Macbeths are suddenly driven to murder will shape the entire production. But for the psychology to make sense, a Company must decide three things; first what role the supernatural have in shaping the play’s outcomes – is Macbeth entirely driven by the witches’ prophecy, does fate or destiny or paranormal force inevitability determine his actions regardless of his own agency? Second, what is the balance of power in the Macbeths marriage, does Lady Macbeth force her unwilling husband to murder his friend, is she merely reflecting Macbeth’s own mind back to him, or is there an equality of purpose between them?

Finally, what is Macbeth’s own motivation? Shakespeare has frequently examined the corruptive nature of power and this play is one of his most chilling examples of dark humanity. So is he destroyed by his own human frailty, driven to act by a strange encounter on the blasted heath that stokes a fire he cannot possibly control? Perhaps instead he’s just greedy, a mercenary friend and soldier who sees a chance for personal advancement and takes it remorselessly? Or, a final possibility, is Macbeth just evil, a force of devilry who enjoys destruction for its own sake?

Unfortunately, the National Theatre’s new production, directed by Rufus Norris, hasn’t obviously made any of these choices and after two hours and 45 minutes of watchable and decently paced performance, the audience has learned nothing about the characters or the world they live in. There is plenty of intellectual engagement with the text and plenty of stage technique that attempts to fill the Olivier space, but you never really understand what is driving the Macbeths or how their post-Civil War world fits around the bloody deed.

Rae Smith’s set design and Moritz Junge’s costumes create a puzzle that never satisfactorily resolves the hierarchical nature of the society referenced in the play. While it is a clear attempt to introduce a new style of location – and here read post-Civil War to mean post-apocalyptic – the rag tag group of people in ripped jeans, combat boots and kneepads never quite convince as a feudal society devoted to the weak leadership of King Duncan dressed like Quentin Crisp on hard times. The aesthetic is dystopia, all concrete rooms and giant curtains made of ripped bin bags, which makes the cast seem like a feral band of guerrillas and a few drug addicts than a nation at war with itself. There is no sense of wider armies clashing in the distance, and it becomes increasingly impossible to reconcile how this grubby and fractured scene supports a system of monarchy and aristocracy. What exactly is the concept of kingship or even destiny in this world of concrete bunkers? And why do the Macbeths even do it, what is there to inherit apart from a red suit (steeped in the blood required to steal a monarchy), that wouldn’t look out of place on John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, and seemingly no other trappings of majesty, not even a better castle.

Smith’s design is consistent and even visionary, but it doesn’t bring meaning or clarity to the play. Practically, the giant, and rather steep, ramp that doubles for hills may dominate the stage and ensure that those in the Olivier circle can see action take place on a level closer to their eyeline, but the actors seem a little unsteady on it and it just gets in the way. Similarly, the ramp and the head witch’s necklace are covered in broken bits of baby dolls and Action Man figures strung together whose meaning is unclear, and it wasn’t until well into the second Act that it became clear that the tall pipes with a cascade of shredded bin bags on top were trees.

Unfortunately, the design adds nothing to the story its telling and barely makes sense. While there’s clearly lots of intended symbolism here, it’s not at all obvious what this is saying about the play. It is a common problem with staging Shakespeare particularly where a pointless period setting is chosen in lieu of making proper choices about the production’s angle on the story. A similar problem affected the RSC’s Cymbeline in 2016 who chose a comparable dystopian design that added very little. Sadly, Smith and Norris have confused putting Macbeth in strange setting with having a “take” on the play – they’re not quite the same thing.

This inconsistency of purpose feeds through into the performances as well, and as impressive as Rory Kinnear usually is, he doesn’t get under the skin of Macbeth at all. On this same stage in 2015, his Iago was one of the finest we’ve seen, but Iago is really a politician in a flak jacket and while Kinnear brings that element to his Macbeth, of an oily predator waiting for a chance to strike, he struggles to convey the true aggression of a trained soldier and, initially at least, a beloved leader of men.

Kinnear has a cerebral connection with the lines, he understands them and delivers them with his usual crisp diction and cadence, but there’s no choice about the kind of Macbeth he wants to be, no sense of a man cruelly battered by fate or setting out on a winding and uncharted path to destruction. There’s no sense of inevitability to his action and while there is a hint early on that this Macbeth relishes the idea of murdering his friend long before he talks to his wife, there is no clear depiction of the anguish, guilt and growing delusion of a man haunted by his earlier actions.

Kinnear just doesn’t have a point of view on his character and as the play wears on it becomes increasingly difficult to believe in his actions. He is an accomplished actor, but there’s something about this role that doesn’t sit right, he’s just not finding the layers of complexity or danger that drive Macbeth to greater and greater extremes. It’s sad to say that you just don’t believe him, whether he’s clutching for invisible daggers or fighting to the death with McDuff, it doesn’t feel credible.

By contrast, Anne-Marie Duff’s restrained and nervy Lady Macbeth towers over the production, and while she’s given very little to work against, Duff brings a desperation to her from the start, clearly suggesting a woman who’s taken all she can and grasps a chance to escape the mire with tear-stained joy.

Her agitated state is a characteristic that Duff sews through the performance, and even when Lady Macbeth must act decisively to cover-up her husband’s mistakes, her moments of courage come from a place of fear rather than evil, which makes her descent into madness credible. There’s little sense of who they are as a couple and their tribulations prior to the start of the play, but Duff allows flickers of repulsion and determination to cross her face in the feast scene as the former connection between man and wife is irrevocably broken.

There are some notable performances from the surrounding cast, including Patrick O’Kane who finds a burning fire in his angry and vengeful McDuff, and while the final confrontation with Macbeth does look a bit like Phil and Grant Mitchell having a barney, O’Kane channels McDuff’s sense of outraged nationhood and personal grief effectively. Stephen Boxer’s Duncan adds gravitas to the early scenes, speaking the verse with a regality that suggests respect despite his inability to act as a military leader.

The interpretation of the witches makes each one slightly different as they shriek their predictions like eerie sirens, but while Beatrice Scirocchi, Anna-Maria Nabirye and Hannah Hutch perform well, their role in the story feels uncertain, and the production has little to say about the nature and influence of superstition on human behaviour.

Norris’s direction keeps the pace moving and utilises the Olivier revolve well to bleed events into one another. And, if you’ve never seen Macbeth before then you may not notice the absence of purpose, because it is a perfectly watchable interpretation that on the surface relays the events of the story with clarity in an unusual new setting. The trouble is Macbeth can be so much more than this.

When done well, it can be a shocking, spine-tingling story that fascinates and repels in equal measure, that can send you home chilled to the bone by its vision of human darkness and the cycle of despair it sets in motion. The spectre of Justin Kurzel’s 2015 movie looms large over this production and while film offers different challenges, it made strong and interesting choices that brought psychological clarity to the story in a fresh and exciting way. All of this was then fed through every aspect of the film unifying performance, costume, setting and music to deliver a Macbeth of raw power and intensity. Yet, so rarely does this transfer to the stage.

Despite the early announcement of a tour in the autumn, and with no time to rethink before tomorrow’s Press Night, this Macbeth is a huge missed opportunity, which, despite its impressive cast and considerable resource, has little to say. Here at the National, as with many other attempts, the production vision lacks real purpose and fails to engage with the complex motivation of Macbeth himself, leaving him and us nowhere to go.

Macbeth is at the National Theatre until 23 June, tickets start at £15 and Macbeth is part of the Friday Rush scheme. Macbeth will be broadcast via NT Live on 10 May, and a UK and Ireland tour will begin in September with a cast to be confirmed. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturacap1


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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