Category Archives: Shakespeare

Series Review: Staged – BBC iPlayer

Michael Sheen and David Tennant in Staged (by BBC)

Who will be first out of the gate when theatres eventually reopen? It is a serious question, one that is surely taxing the minds of producers and directors across the country as they consider what can be safely staged in response to social distancing rules and public health expectations. Musicals with their large cast and crew requirements are likely to be at the back of the queue while plays with only one or two characters may be all that can be offered for a while. As Simon Evans’s cheeky new comedy points out, when the Government finally gives the go ahead, the best prepared teams will have their pick of the playhouses and first dibs on an audience desperate to get back to live theatre.

Evans’s delightful six-part comedy – showing weekly on BBC1 but also available in full on the iPlayer – centres around this notion while drawing on our lockdown experience of video calling platforms as a director tries to herd his two reluctant actors into rehearsals. Online theatre has changed considerably in the last three months, and we now seem a million miles from those tentative live readings on clunky Zoom calls uploaded to Youtube. Creatives have learned a lot and learned fast, and this rapid response to telling stories has resulted in some fascinating new content being created.

As well as ITV’s Lockdown Stories and the Donmar’s Midnight Your Time, several well-known theatre writers and performers created the anthology series Unprecedented, using the premise of video calling to tell a fascinating range of tales that covered everything from neighbourhood parties, vile team meetings and domestic abuse. No two perspectives and, crucially, no two filming styles were the same offering plenty of innovative approaches to what are straightened circumstances.

In a sense Staged is the culmination of all of that new knowledge, combining different kinds of camera, some installed as (or made to look like) webcams and others set-up and operated in the actors own homes, adding a level of polish to the show that would have seemed virtually impossible a few months ago. It also gives Evans greater flexibility in how he tells the story using a wider range of footage, including scene-break captures of deserted London streets, so eerie during the first phase of lockdown, and more sophisticated film cutting techniques that hardly betray the unusual circumstances in which this show was created.

Much has been made in the press of the obvious comparisons with The Trip, but that makes it sound derivative and although the slightly vexed two-person conversation is structurally similar, Staged actually seems better situated in the faux social-realism of fly-on-the-wall style “mockumentaries” as well the vast body of work generated about life backstage. Staged is more than merely 90-minutes of random banter between actors Michael Sheen and David Tennant, and Evans uses the time to construct a sense of how their personalities and frustrations have consequences for the work they are failing to accomplish.

While largely fictionalised, the border with reality – these are their homes and families – draws a line directly back to the comic seriousness of Victoria Wood’s earnest documentary sketches from the As Seen on TV series, passing through both The Office and This Country as it delineates its scenario so, rather than a workplace or a village, Staged is confined by the video platform and the physical boundary of the protagonist’s homes, using that to drive conversation and elicit reactions.

And this episodic production also speaks to theatre and film’s fascination with itself. At its heart, this is a story about the creative process and much of the humour derives from the ineffectual director losing control of the rehearsal period while mishandling various eruptions of theatre-politics that threaten to derail the play entirely. In this sense, Staged has everything in common with All About Eve, Present Laughter and, more recently, The Understudy (also recorded during lockdown), part of a long history of self-anatomising theatre and film.

As a story, then, Staged sits in this much broader context , giving an added dimension to the interactions between Evans, Tennant and Sheen, providing psychological insight into the fluctuating emotions of characters prevented by the pandemic from doing their jobs. At only 15-18 minutes per episode, these are perfectly pitched bite-sized pieces that can be eeked out or consumed in one sitting via the iPlayer, either way Staged is a richly rewarding experience.

The first episode is predominantly exposition as Evans establishes the premise. Initially it is a little stagey as Simon anxiously waits for lead David to convince Michael to costar in a revival of Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author and to undertake rehearsals online so they are ahead of the competition when playhouses reopen. Padding around in his dressing gown and staring anxiously at the view, the heightened style is a little broad, but soon settles into an addictive rhythm.

The messes Evans creates for himself are pure sitcom as poor judgement and a lack of authority cause a ripple effect across the series. The consequences are left to a selection of juicy cameo roles in which producer Jo and a series of fabulously-timed guest stars pick up the comedy baton – none of whom should be spoiled in advance, the impact of their big reveal in the show is best discovered in the moment. The biggest of these appears in Episode Three when the original actor that Michael replaced must be told he is off the project. What ensues is a hilarious conversation initially between characters Simon, Michael and David, and then eventually with the guest star as the conferencing technology itself becomes the means of twice catching David out in silly lies that leave him with egg on his face.

Another well-known performer appears in Episode Five as Simon haplessly  recruits another actor to the cast without really having a major part for them, leaving David and Michael agog as they withstand their guest’s aggressively upbeat approach to lockdown. And finally in Episode Six a joyous cameo from a theatre legend drafted in by Simon and producer Jo to get his errant leads and rehearsals back on track. The recurring appearance of Nina Sosanya as fierce producer Jo is wonderful, and while you long to see more of her dismissive cool, her rationed appearances are, at the same time, just enough to pep-up the action as she savagely berates Simon’s failures. Listen out for her unseen assistant’s hysterical quip about furloughing him.

All of this builds a strong frame within which the two leads can shape their performances, the tenure of which ebbs and flows throughout the series as they bicker and support one another in what are two very game performances. The chemistry that Sheen and Tennant have developed overcomes their physical distance. As egos clash over credits, they force each other to stand in the corner for lying and brutally criticise each other’s appearance and performances – David is “cartoonish” according to Michael, while Michael is “mumbly” in David’s view – the enduring affection and respect for one another defies their socially distant technological interactions. Changing the credits at the beginning and end of every episode to reflect the discussions and dramas within is also a very nice touch.

The character of David is given the broadest context in some ways with scenes filmed around his home, participating in rehearsal calls from different rooms while interacting with his family or dealing with the pressure of lockdown. He is the more introspective of the two, and Tennant creates a sense of isolation and purposelessness in David, a man lost without the work that defines him. Wearing the same costume throughout, the strain of being trapped at home overwhelms him and he spirals into a kind of functioning depression as the series draws on, struggling to focus or find any creative satisfaction in the stunted play rehearsals.

Yet, Tennant doesn’t let the audience feel too sorry for him, tempering his creation with less appealing traits including a self-absorption that leaves his wife to manage their five children while almost neglecting their care in favour of calling Michael when he is required to parent. David also lies and manipulates other characters to avoid difficult confrontations which end up rebounding on him in a number of amusing ways, his sulky annoyance at being caught out in Episode Three is a highlight in an overall performance that is the essence of tragicomic.

Michael’s point of view is quite different, and the webcam angle is the only one the audience sees from his perspective. Other aspects of his life are referenced in conversation, but this singular view adds a layer of privacy to his character that fits the slightly belligerent disdain with which he regards the entire process and especially his Director. There is a different kind of ego in Michael which Sheen plays up to, one based on his professional success and lack of rejection. Some of the most entertaining conversations with David involve a sniping comparison of their theatre credits and this version of Michael thirsts for praise.

Michael is a far less introspective character than David, so softer tones are added in the concern for an elderly neighbour, a conversation that escalates across the series as he is blackmailed for secreting empty bottles in her recycling bin and eventually becomes involved in something more concerning. Sheen keeps Michael’s inner world under wraps to a degree, talking largely about work and nonsense but rarely giving much away about his emotional state. Yet, there is also plenty of humour in Michael’s continual ire with an argument in Episode Four one of his best moments while his menacing tendency to loom into the camera shows a technical understanding of film that proves extremely adept.

As their long-suffering partners Georgia Tennant has the best of it, a superwoman figure able to manage their many children, help a friend give birth, sell a novel and support her husband – mirroring the actor’s real self where she has additional hats of actor, photographer and producer. She has a naturalness on screen that suits the tone entirely and amusingly refuses to indulge David’s maudlin demands for attention. Sheen’s partner Anna Lundberg is less successful and while her wider life is more limited, Lundberg’s performance is too knowing, not quite meshing with the understated, conversational silliness of the very British humour.

In just three months, we have come a very long way in the quality and invention of shows created under socially distanced conditions. The success of Staged lies in the strength of its premise feeding through the structural and visual storytelling concept. How quickly Evans and his team have learned to get the most from the technology available, making a virtue of the video calling platforms we are all enduring. The fictionally lethargic Sheen and Tennant (or should that be Tennant and Sheen) might not be first out of the gate with their Pirandello, but while we wait for theatres to reopen, watched slowly or in one sitting, you’ll be glad to share a bit of lockdown with them both.

All six episodes of Staged are available on the BBC iPlayer for at least a year or screening on Wednesdays on BBC1. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


Coriolanus and the Hero-Warrior – National Theatre at Home

Tom Hiddleston in Coriolanus (by Johan Persson)

Coriolanus is a strangely neglected and infrequently performed play, one without the speechifying and introspection that offer psychological insight into Shakespeare’s most popular protagonists. Yet, with its focus on the delusion of leadership, the importance of the mob and the brittle basis of populism, Coriolanus is truly a play for our times. A recent production starring Tom Bateman at the Sheffield Playhouse was truncated by the pandemic, so this is the perfect time to revisit the Donmar Warehouse’s extraordinary 2014 production showing this week via National Theatre at Home and starring Tom Hiddleston.

Six years on, this remains one of the most viscerally impressive productions of the last decade, a fascinating dissection of power, class and the enduring battle between military conquest and political protectionism that characterise Shakespeare’s Roman plays. Wars and conflicts occur across Shakespeare’s plays and, within the Histories especially, this involves many characters whose motivations and purpose in the story vary considerably as families, regions and nations contend for tangible forms of power.

In these plays, Shakespeare is particularly interested in the formation and decline of the warrior as an archetype, charting the dehumanisation process that rids the individual of personal weaknesses and emotion, transforming them into great and celebrated military leaders. The Henriad trilogy is the best example of this, following the reformation of Prince Hal from tavern-dwelling layabout to the principled and invincible monarch-conqueror. There are plenty of moments of hesitation, uncertainty and fragility along the way, but the steel that Henry V displays on the battlefield and in the rejection of his former companions denote the completion of his metamorphoses from fallible human prince to an idealised personification of glorious war.

Equally interesting is the post-war process in which the feted Hero-Warrior, unable to sustain their god-like form, must return to society – something Henry V escapes by dying unceremoniously in Shakespeare’s afterword. Now irreversibly changed or damaged by combat, the Hero-Warrior sets in motion a train of events that lead disastrously to their own destruction. Caius Martius who earns the moniker Coriolanus from his bloodthirsty endeavours takes this path through the play, the self-destruction of a hero unwilling to accept the confines of a society that built him and this becomes the major driver of Josie Rourke’s outstanding production.

Characteristics of the Hero-Warrior

Heroism is an intangible characteristic in many ways, requiring personality traits including decency, fairness, courage and bravery as well as deeds to demonstrate the hero’s prowess. There are several characters who begin one of Shakespeare’s plays already in the position of celebrated military hero – Coriolanus, Macbeth and Antony – all of whom return from garlanded battle with honours and political recognition, the discussion of which dominates the early section of these plays. Yet the very characteristic that made them also becomes their fatal flaw and pursuing it in peacetime takes them on a path to inevitable destruction and death.

In the Donmar’s Coriolanus, the audience is given a vivid picture of the protagonist’s battlefield strengths in an opening section where he descries the cowardice of his compatriots hiding in trenches rather than running into battle. He goes on to take the city of Corioli singlehanded, returning drenched in blood that runs into his eyes, covering his face and upper body entirely – a beautifully staged moment from Rourke and designer Lucy Osborne. Instantly we know that this is a man apart from others, one with superior fighting skills, incredible audacity and, crucially, an excess of bloodlust that make him part hero part madman.

What unfolds in the rest of the play suggests how fatally flawed this Hero-Warrior is, bred for the simplicity of soldiering, the life and death fundamentality of it all, and entirely unfitted for the grey, oleaginous world of politics. In Hiddleston’s remarkable performance, we see the effect of hubris and how clearly the very thing that made Coriolanus also breaks him – the love of his mother Volumnia. The intensity of their relationship, visible on his return to Rome is given physical form in the tenderness of the greeting between Hiddleston and Deborah Findlay, exceeding that for his wife and son. His reliance on her guidance is vital to understanding the path Coriolanus takes, his unyielding refusal to be other than what she made him even when the great prize of political office and power are offered. By the same extension, when he does finally succumb to her entreaties in the penultimate scene of this production and shows mercy to his former home, he places his mother above himself – it proves his undoing.

Shakespeare’s other Hero-Warriors experience a similar trajectory and while their motivation and downfall is conceived differently, both Macbeth and Antony suffer a rapid fall from grace, tumbling from invincible military hero supporting the dynastic sustenance of the state to its most pressing enemy. Macbeth’s ambitious belief in fate  becomes his fatal flaw which in the early part of the play summons his courage to take the Kingship he craves, while that self-same fate becomes a poisoned chalice as he tries to outmanoeuvre the destiny earmarked for him at the start of the play.

Antony, likewise, is in a solid position at the start of Antony and Cleopatra holding a third of the Roman Empire in his grasp while living with the woman he adores. Antony’s fatal flaw – lust – helps to build his powerbase before the play begins uniting two countries in mutual support, but as his strategic abilities are increasingly clouded by his attachment to Egypt, he foreshadows the series of military disasters that lead to his his military capitulation and death. All of these men experience the decline of the Hero-Warrior image during the course of the play, a status and easiness of mind held at the start which they will never know again.

The Military-Political Clash

One of the core themes of Coriolanus is the uneasy alliance between military action and the democratic process, an idea that recurs in Shakespeare’s Roman plays. States are reliant on the bravado of commanders to conquer territories and occupy land, but attempts to translate battlefield honours into consolidated political roles in peacetime society often in the role of Consul or Tribune, are treated with suspicion by the career politicians that pack the Senate. Julius Caesar is the best example of this as the predominantly civilian conspirators plot to destroy their overmighty colleague, the unspoken threat of the violence his legions could unleash on the city a driving force in his assassination and the recruitment of veteran Brutus to their cause.

In Coriolanus the sniping role of Tribunes Sicinia and Brutus played by Helen Schlesinger and Elliot Levy starkly exemplifies that division, adding a class angle between the rulers and the ruled as they both represent and manipulate the voice of the people, using political tactics to dispense with the military man they personal despise. The status of Hero-Warrior counts for remarkably little in the political arena, and Coriolanus struggles to accept the legitimacy of a government that requires the frequent sacrifice of his blood to protect it but not his person. And while the Hydra-like work of the Tribunes (a reference Shakespeare returns to throughout the play) makes them and their reasoning entirely unsympathetic, Coriolanus’s own disdain for democratic process and the people become equally problematic for him.

Dismissive of the facile rituals of political conduct, Hiddleston’s sneering warrior mocks the ceremony of installation into the Consular office, pulling at the robe and laurel crown and refusing to parade his war wounds in order to beg for ‘voices’. Encouraged by his mother to comply with conventions, Hiddleston shows the frustration of the solider forced to debase himself as he courts a popularity he believes should be his by right and contends with his own straightforward honesty (brutal though it is). The result is a bristling tension in this production as Coriolanus struggles to flatter the citizens he can barely hide his contempt for as the audience anticipates confrontation. Within the play there is a fundamental clash between the two mutually dependent arms of the state that find each other’s rituals and personnel distasteful, a conflict, Shakespeare suggests in the plays set later that is never entirely resolved.

A Hard-Edged Vulnerability

The early scenes of the play are full of machismo as battles are fought and the posturing of victory informs the audience’s image of Coriolanus as an unyielding and statuesque figure. Hiddleston’s entrance sets the tone entirely as he captures both the commanding figure and personal charisma of a solider whose exploits are widely admired.  It is a very physical performance, his posture set in rigid military bearing with shoulders back and head held high even when lurking at the back of the stage when’s he out of the scene, creating a fearsome impression, using his posture and surety of step to dominate the stage. There is real danger in Hiddleston’s Coriolanus, a no man’s land between rational, strategic thinking and a psychotic madness that erupts into violence as he fights the Volscian’s led by Hadley Fraser. The menace and physical strength Hiddleston exudes ideally situates the fears of the political class as his return to Rome provokes suspicion and jeopardy for the city.

And while it would be easy to play him as a blustering bully or maniac, what made Hiddleston’s performance so memorable is the thread of vulnerability that runs throughout his characterisation, generating a degree of compassion for the ill-fated general. It is an interpretation that gets between the lines of Shakespeare’s text and colours-in some of the emotional and psychological substance absent from a play with no great speeches or underlying lyricism – at least Macbeth and Antony had soliloquies in which they could unpack their minds to the viewer and themselves.

Hiddleston is a very subtle actor on stage, eschewing expansive expressions or gestures in favour of almost imperceptible flickers of feeling that provide a far richer and deeper experience, particularly well suited to the supposed impassivity of Coriolanus. The emotion exudes from within the character, registering largely in the actor’s eyes as they convey the effect of betrayal to the audience. We see a light die in him as the hurts and taunts dispel any ideas he may have had of his homecoming, while the painful process of dressing-up to beg for votes is clearly an embarrassing affront to the Hero-Warrior ego.

But it is the penultimate scene where these vulnerabilities are so movingly represented, broken down by his mother’s appeal for mercy, Hiddleston brings great clarity to the struggle within Coriolanus between the right tactical response to ensure his victory over Rome as well as ensuring the faith of his new-found comrades, and surrendering the advantage to guarantee the life of his own family. Coriolanus must choose between the two sides of himself, Caius Martius and Coriolanus, the soldier and the politician, knowing the latter ensures his own death, a dilemma that is full of agony in this meaningful performance.

The Donmar’s production of Coriolanus is one of the great NT Live recordings, capturing the intimacy of the space and the intensity of the production. The play may lack the grand tragedy of Macbeth or Antony and Cleopatra but this production makes a fine case for its value as a study of the declining Hero-Warrior and its relevance to our current political climate. The impasse between deluded politicians shoring up their own span of power and those who lack the temperament for government but can accomplish great deeds is the essence of Coriolanus – Shakespeare shows us it was ever thus.

Coriolanus is freely available on the National Theatre at Home Youtube channel until 12 June. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


Henry IV: Part One – Drama on 3

Toby Jones, Iain Glen and Luke Thompson

Shakespeare’s Henriad trilogy comprising Henry IV Parts One and Two and Henry V is one of dramas greatest studies in character development, taking the young and flighty Prince Hal from rebellious, tavern-dwelling rascal to warrior king. Against the backdrop of one of the most formative periods of English history in which the Plantagenet dynasty solidified its power, setting down attempts to overthrow their dynastic control, while sewing the seeds for the York versus Lancaster battles that are the foundation of our modern monarchy. It is little wonder that the role of Prince Hal / Henry V has attracted many of our finest actors from Alex Hassell for the RSC to Tom Hiddleston for the BBC and Timothee Chalamet for Netflix. Just as attractive, the role of Henry IV himself has been played by many illustrious performers on stage and screen including Patrick Stewart and Jeremy Irons, while Hal’s great friend Falstaff has been Simon Russell Beale, Joel Edgerton and  Anthony Sher.

Now Drama on 3 adds to this distinguished group with a radio production led by Iain Glen, Toby Jones and Luke Thompson. Henry IV – Part One is a play about transition in which the central characters are forced to accept their own destiny, to see themselves truly for the first time. And while much of the attention is on the partying prince learning the error of his youthful exuberance and foolish friendship, in focusing equally on Falstaff and King Henry, Shakespeare has much to say about the indignities of ageing, the taciturn nature of monarchy and the nature of public image.

Sally Avens’s radio drama, contained within a two-hour running time, expends some of the broader historical narrative to really develop the idea of Hal torn between two seemingly different but mutually disappointing father figures as he subconsciously attempts to hide from his duty as heir apparent. It is a production in which military endeavour becomes the means through which an estranged son is reconciled with one father while starting to see through another.

As with Emma Harding’s excellent Othello a few weeks ago, Avens’s Henry IV – Part One finds an intimacy with its central characters, drawing them metaphorically and audibly into the foreground to explore their quite different characters, as well as their inexplicable hold over one another. And whether attention is focused on any of Shakespeare’s three character sets – the Court, the Eastcheap Group or the Rebels – the clarity of their purpose and the complexity of their motivation is given prominence. The overall effect is to clearly see how loyalties within the tetralogy (Richard II and the three Henry plays) are shaped over time, changing as political fortunes ebb and flow.

The creation of place once again becomes crucial to managing the three strands of the story before the cataclysmic intersection of these parties at the Battle of Shrewsbury. The murmur of voices and revelry that make up the Eastcheap Tavern suggest plenty of happy afternoons for Prince Hal and Falstaff in the cosy but not overwhelmingly busy confines of their favourite drinking establishment. There is a warmth and welcome in this soundscape that does so much to add to the atmosphere of the pub. Likewise, the cold and formal austerity of the court has a faint echoing quality suggestive of grand medieval stonework and the reverent silence of its architecture. Meanwhile the homely countryside residence of the Percy family has a foreboding quality, of happy family life soon to be disrupted, the calm before the storm.

The use of sound effects comes into its own in the play’s final sequences set in the midst of the battle, and while TV budgets mean these scenes can look a little sparse – often a handful of men meant to look like thousands, or worse clunky CGI battalions – using audio effects alone better creates the chaos and energy of combat, richly conveyed here using layers of sound including clanking swords, whinnying horses and the physical exertion of engaged men across the battlefield as exhausted but exhilarated soldiers contend.

And this becomes crucial as the battle marks a watershed in the wider play, both in terms of the various political machinations that have threatened Henry’s throne as well as marking a sea change in the characterisation, setting-up some new behaviours as well as the notable decline of the old ways that dominates the atmosphere in Henry IV-Part Two, which in turn subsequently makes way for the outward facing foreign policy programme and dynastic consolidation of Henry V. Consequently, the Battle of Shrewsbury feels climactic and decisive in several ways, and Avens’s production has some sense of the completeness that Shakespeare intends when he left this play without a cliffhanger.

Instead, the rebels are crushed, Hal proves his worth while reconciling with his father and Falstaff’s mendacity is finally the cause of a severence with the young prince. This Drama on 3 version slims the text in a way rarely seen on stage, but nonetheless manages to take the characters through their story arc and deposit them creditably at the point of ultimate military and personal conquest ready for the wheel of fortune to turn further in Part Two.

Falstaff is one of drama’s most memorable comic creations and his presence dominates what is essentially a dynastic story of political stability played across a number of father-son relationship. In most Shakespeare plays it is relatively unusual for the humorous sideshow characters to dominate proceedings, although recent versions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Bridge Theatre and Wilton’s Music Hall emphasised the Rude Mechanicals and built their vision for the play around them. Yet Falstaff alone has long held the cultural imagination.

Toby Jones might struggle to be cast onstage bearing as little resemblance to the portly alcoholic of description as the tall, slight Matthew Needham did to the physical heft of Stanley Kowalski, but radio offers much greater casting fluidity for actors and Jones is superb as the verbose, flustered and evasive merrymaker who prizes his own comfort above duty, loyalty and most importantly truth.

Using just his voice, Jones vividly conveys the shabby untidiness of the man, a very bodily implication of lumbering dishevelment that has tones of his recent (and sadly truncated) performance as Vanya. Falstaff lies with disarming ease, mixing outright falsehoods with exaggerations and misdirection in an attempt to increase his own sense of importance, making his achievements grander and more daring than they really were.

With considerable skill, Jones doesn’t go looking for the comedy but allows it to emerge naturally from the characterisation he builds, strongly suggesting how little control Falstaff has over these aspects of his personality which come more from a disordered fluster than a malicious desire to deceive, at least in his tavern-based bragging, a drunken desire to tell the best story. It is only when he is really in danger at the Battle of Shrewsbury where his self-preservation instinct becomes more poisonous in Jones’s interpretation, nicely creating the conditions for the rift with Prince Hal that follows in Part Two.

Luke Thompson builds on his growing portfolio of Shakespeare performances, giving his Prince Hal a playful quality, a young man enjoying his freedom and the company of men that on one level he finds ridiculous. The cheeky and teasing tone that Thompson employs when talking to Falstaff in particular and the enjoyment of practical jokes and impressions is tempered by a hint of mockery, the lightest touch of disdain that suggests that this ‘young Harry’ never forgets his superiority of birth, intelligence and manner in which his thoughts are already turning to life beyond Eastcheap, even as the play begins.

Soon, then, the various and obvious exaggerations of his companion are met with exasperated irony, as though the shine is coming off the friendship. Thus, when Hal is recalled to Court to help set-down the brewing rebellion, Thompson’s heir apparent is ready to move into his public role, to finally assume the responsibilities of adulthood that mark his progress through these three plays. Although Part Two will see this resolve waver slightly, here in Part One, the final confrontation with Tom Glynn-Carney’s Hotspur on the battlefield is climactic and decisively played by a prince at once defending and assuming his birthright.

There are further theatre stars among the extended cast including Iain Glen adding a wonderful gravitas at Henry IV, the monarch who conquered his way to the crown, sober and grave but regal and dignified in his management of the court. The stately rage he summons to address his former comrades marks a clear separation between the man he once was and the king he has become – foreshadowing Hal’s own transformation in this trilogy – and the dismissal with which he treats Hotspur clearly ignites the ire of the Percy clan.

But it is the relationship with Prince Hal where Henry IV’s stoical reserve is most tested as Glen intriguingly navigates a sharp disappointment and frustration while retaining a deep affection for the son he physically and emotionally fails to inspire. The lengthy speech on reconciliation addressed to Hal is a wonderful example of inspirational chastisement in which Glen stirringly advocates the transforming soberness of monarchy and the exchange of person for symbol that he hopes Hal will replicate, while shaming him with tales of the fiery exploits of Hotspur.

The stunted rebellion, led by the Percys, is often the least considered aspect of the story despite mirroring Henry IV’s own belligerent ascent to the throne, but there Avens carves this story into three, alloting equal time to their cause, suggesting how the once allied family lost faith in the man they previously helped to make a king. Tom Glynn-Carney is a determined Hotspur, barely able to conceal his temper when the Percy name is seemingly disrespected by Henry IV, and implying a close family life with Mark Bonnar’s Worcester. The various extended relationships with the Welsh and Scottish insurgents remain as confusing as Shakespeare wrote them but John Nicholls music lends their conversations plenty of conspiratorial atmosphere.

This Henry VI-Part One is at heart a character-study rather than a historical epic, and Avens brings the recording of soliloquies forward in the soundscape to create intimacy and insight. It gives this fine collection of theatre actors a chance to really explore the inner life of their characters and bring them fully and roundly to life in this enjoyable radio dramatisation. Whether just this first portion of the Henriad trilogy was commissioned or lockdown has delayed recording of the rest, let’s hope Radio 3 can gather Jones, Glen and Thompson together soon for Henry IV-Part Two and Henry V , although when our theatres reopen we may yet see it staged.

Henry IV – Part One is available via the BBC Sounds website for at least twelve months. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


Othello – Drama on 3

Othello - Drama on 3

Amidst the panic of theatre closures and the wonderful avalanche of classic shows being made available to watch online, a major repository of drama has been missed, one that continues to premiere brand new performances and adaptations of well-known plays every week while enticing some of our best-loved stage stars to appear in them. Like other kinds of theatre it requires technical and artistic direction as well as a creative team to help the audience to visualise the setting and contextualise the characters, and, in perfect compliance with lockdown rules, you don’t even need to leave the house. Where are all these wonderful new productions – they’re on the radio.

Radio drama is the forgotten cousin of the stage, and while millions tune in regularly, the vast majority of theatre fans barely know its there. Within the theatre echo chamber, when was the last time you saw someone tweet about a fantastic radio play or, excluding a couple of new lockdown evens, see coverage of upcoming airings in a theatre newsletter? And apart from the announced (and much promoted) premiere of The Understudy in two parts next month, when is radio drama ever considered a “must-listen” event, it doesn’t even warrant critical review.

Yet, every week some of the UK’s finest acting talent, whether up-and-coming early career performers or well established titans, appear on the airwaves and its all completely free. In this drought of live theatre when full-length productions are being streamed on Youtube or uploaded to the BBC iPlayer, why isn’t radio part of the conversation, because if you want your fix of new drama then all you have to do is tune in.

Perhaps it is partly because radio plays have a slightly undeserved reputation for being (ironically) too “stagey”, over-emphatic actors trying to do too much with their voice and creating a false sounding effect in which the rhythms of natural speech become stilted when there are no visual clues to bound reactions and characterisation. Yet, while we’ve been running to the West End and other spaces for core interpretations of major plays, radio stations have been stealing a march on physical theatre with some top quality productions. Some of the standout interpretations of recent years include John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger with David Tennant, Nancy Caroll and Daniel Evans (2016) and a stunning A Streetcar Named Desire from 2017 with Anne Marie Duff , John Heffernan and Matthew Needham which was recently repeated. While only yesterday a new version of Henry IV – Part One with Iain Glenn, Toby Jones and Luke Thompson aired on Radio 3, a lockdown treat with some of our finest stage performers.

Last week, Drama on 3 also premiered a new Othello, slimmed to two hours by director Emma Harding and relocated to the near future where Turkey threatens to invade Cyprus. Against this reconsidered backdrop, Harding was keen to explore how the play’s concept of “otherness”, that dogs Othello’s acceptance and integration through the story, links to what may once have been a Muslim faith. A converted Christian in the play, there is little to indicate who Othello was before we meet him, but it is an interesting hook for a story familiar through recent stage productions including the National Theatre’s 2013 version with Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear and The Globe’s 2018 attempt with Mark Rylance and Andre Holland.

Atmospherically enhanced by music between the scenes, the subtly of Harding’s approach keeps Othello himself slightly beyond the other characters, a man whose religious and cultural background may have more in common with his enemies than his Venetian comrades. At heart Othello, like so many of Shakespeare’s plays, reflects on the politics of power as its central character – the villainous Iago – seeks revenge after being overlooked for promotion. The military, social and religious themes within the play flow from and into Iago’s plot to drive a wedge between Othello and his wife, while raising suspicion about “the Moor’s” judgement and appropriateness for office as Iago goads the extremes of his jealously and temper.

Harding never forgets this and in the shortened radio format, vividly emphasises how duplicitously Othello’s reason is first isolated and then undermined, giving a driving inevitability to the panic and anger that result in the play’s multiple and quick-fire deaths. It creates a great deal of momentum in this production in which the initial lie escalates very quickly, allowing the audience to see how disbelief and dismissal translate so purposefully into despair and fury as Iago separates and then carefully controls the flow of information around the Cypriot base.

Harding’s key achievement here is in skillfully creating the context in which the action takes place, which, with no visual clues or effects to rely on, must emerge entirely from the technical application of sound design as well as the tone and atmosphere developed through the performances and how they are recorded. There is considerable sophistication in the way audio effects are integrated into the production to prompt the audience’s imagination as the sound of busy Venetian streets and the babble of people living in close quarters flesh-out the physical world in which the action takes place. Unlike theatre, radio must inspire rather than proscribe, forcing the audience to conjure every scene and character in their own minds led by the judicious application of these effects. And throughout this honed two-hour piece, you are transported to the changing locations through sound and voice, allowing the listener to focus on the developing drama and visualise the interactions more easily.

This is, for the most part, a softly-spoken version of the play, one in which the air of secrecy creates an intimacy between the audience and Iago especially as his stratagems are outlined with a whispering intensity. Harding generates considerable tension by focusing on the ferocity of Iago’s anger distilled as a patient and pantherous stalking of his prey. And while most of the soliloquies are needfully cut to bring this to two hours, the attention to character development and purpose still makes sense of Shakespeare’s characters, creating an intimate confederacy with the audience.

Matthew Needham has developed quite a portfolio of interesting projects in the last few years but is probably best known for his lonely self-destructive doctor in Rebecca Frecknall’s glorious revival of Summer and Smoke at the Almeida and Duke of York’s. Continuing the Williams theme, prior to this his performance as Stanley in Drama on 3’s A Streecar Named Desire (sadly not currently available) was outstanding, using vocal variation to imply the strutting masculinity and brute strength of a Stanley you couldn’t see while vividly drawing-out the character’s sensitivity and bristling sexuality, devotion to his wife and social status. That ability to give his creation a solid physicality and dimensional shape using only Williams’s dialogue was fascinating in what was a high-quality drama across the board. Casting Needham as Iago is, then, a canny decision, one that is fundamental to the success of this Othello.

Iago is a political creature willing to go to considerable lengths to achieve his ends. Needham’s interpretation has a restrained charm, inveigling his way into Othello’s favour all the while manipulating events with an air of perfect innocence. In the tense and suspicious climate that Harding has created, it is all too easy for Needham’s Iago to disrupt the harmony of the military base, telling tales to different comrades that they instantly believe through his remarkably successful divide and conquer strategy. The appearance of credibility, Needham suggests, makes sense of Othello, Roderigo and Cassio’s readiness to trust and rely on him, little knowing that pulling their strings serves his own wider purpose.

It is an absorbing performance, supported by the proximity of those low-voiced monologues which Iago shares just with the audience and only on the radio does a greater rapport with the listener emerge, as though Needham’s hushed tones are poured directly into your ear in a bond of allegiance between you and him alone. He is dangerous too and while there is little suggestion of physical strength, instead the ruthlessness of the character is foregrounded, the willingness to use any means at his disposal to manufacture Othello’s suffering with little regard for the consequences. The final moments of the play in which Othello instigates his tragic revenge are enhanced by the qualities of this Iago, and how carefully Needham has primed the audience for the lovers’ confrontation. If you were disappointed by Mark Rylance’s larkey approach, then Needham’s chilling creation is a great antidote.

Khalid Abdalla’s Othello draws from this culture of suspicion and secrecy that Harding creates, charting the progress of a military leader returning in triumph with his new wife and the world at his feet to a paranoid and distrustful man. The way in which Abdalla sheds the protective armor of role and status to reveal the scarred and frightened humanity underneath is really well achieved using the tone and level of his voice to convey Othello’s growing distress. Later, as that turns to anger, the tragic conclusive scene is grippingly played as Abdalla’s Othello builds tension though the vocal performance, suggesting how completely his mind has been irrationally poisoned by jealousy, but also what an intimidating warrior he still is, before regret and shame consume his final moments in what is a layered and enjoyably rich performance.

There is some great support from the female roles as well with Cassie Layton’s bewildered Desdemona suggesting equality in her marriage in the early scenes and, while still an innocent victim of Iago’s trick, pleads with determination and calm surety when faced with her husband’s groundless accusations. Likewise, Bettrys Jones’s Emilia is a more powerful force in the play than often seen, devoted to her mistress and proving her worth in the closing scene as she forcibly berates Othello. She is also entirely unaware of her husband Iago’s treachery and the deception implied in Jones’s performance ties neatly into Harding’s overarching approach, emphasing  the role of Iago in destabilising this group of people to create a culture in which marital deception – or the assumption of it – becomes the norm.

Some of the very best versions of Shakespeare’s plays are also the simplest, letting the rhythm of the language, its imagery and pscyhological construction guide the forward motion of the drama. And with only voices and sound, where better than the radio to stage this well considered adaptation that allows the listener to focus on writing and characterisation. Harding’s original intention to consider the clash of socio-religious culture doesn’t get as much attention as it needs, atlhough it is a interesting interpretation, but when Iago’s plot takes hold, the play develops a momentum of its own. With new and archive classics available online, it’s time for BBC Radio radio drama to stop being so modest because, with fresh adaptations and some of our greatest acting talent already onboard, it has much to contribute to our ongoing thirst for theatre.

Othello is free to stream via BBC Sounds for at least a year. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


Macbeth: A Psychological Study

Macbeth - Harry Anton, Michael Fassbender and Jo Nesbo

Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s most frequently performed play and it is a story filled with death, danger and prophesy. With witches and military conquest, kingly intrigue, madness and betrayal, it speaks to us of the price of personal ambition and the consequences of power-play at the highest level of government. Consequently, its influence is widely felt across our culture, the ambiguous attraction of one of Shakespeare’s most brilliantly constructed antiheroes proves irresistible to so many. Yet, it is not an easy play to master, so intricately has the writer devised the psychological shape that more productions fail than succeed in creating the right (and believable) conditions for Macbeth’s crimes to flourish and die by his own hand.

Looking at successful adaptations of the play drawn from different media – a recent  theatre production, a film and a novelisation – as well as a high-profile production that failed, it is clear that the very best versions of the story exist in a complex psychological abyss. Giving due consideration to the various forces within the play and making them work in harmony is crucial to achieving a credible interpretation however different these may be.

The Play

Macbeth is a play that on the surface seems easy to understand, a regular favourite on the fringe especially (along with A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Much Ado About Nothing), this dark tale of murder, revenge and retribution seems quite straightforward. Yet, there are three fundamental questions that govern the play and regardless of how an adaptation answers them or the era in which the story is reimagined, these questions must be tackled consistently to ensure that the psychological building blocks of the play properly stack together.

First, the role of the supernatural must be determined, is the story driven by prophesy and fate to an inevitable end or are the witches merely a symbolic manifestation of Macbeth’s (and our) desire to believe that random events have divine purpose? Second, what is the role of human agency in the play, does Macbeth use the witches’ forecast to solidify decisions he would have made anyway, controlling his own path to kingship or is he the puppet of destiny, and to what extent is he consciously aware of his freedom to act or his failure to maintain power over the events he seeks to control?

Finally, what is the nature of the relationship between the protagonist and his wife, is she merely another victim of Macbeth’s ‘vaulting ambition’ or is his enthrallment with her own lust for power the cause of so many deaths – this is particularly relevant when, consumed with paranoia, Macbeth strikes out on his own in the second half of the play, confining Lady Macbeth to the shadows. Regardless of whether the play is set in medieval Scotland, a dystopian future or the crime-riddled streets of Inverness by way of Norway, the answers to these questions are the key to unlocking the play and ensuring its successful transition to the stage.

The Theatre Adaptation

Last summer, Antic Disposition presented their nineteenth-century set version of Macbeth in Temple Church and in doing so created one of the best approaches to the play that London has seen in recent years. Directed by Ben Horslen and John Risebero and with a superb performance by Harry Anton in the title role, the production chose to make the effect of the supernatural fundamental to the story, manipulating and driving events at every turn by placing the witches as servants in the Palace where they could closely observe and shape the action. It proved a smart decision, one that in the eerie setting of the church created a chilling tone as the witches appeared at every death or key moment as silent but menacing symbols of fate, ever pleased with how precisely their interference in human affairs fulfilled their intention.

In answering the first question so decidedly, the result was to create inevitability in the story that affected the impact of human agency, shown here to be fruitless as characters retained merely the illusion of free thought. Anton’s mellifluous Macbeth was cruel and soldierly with no particular love for Duncan. The witches prophesy igniting a latent ambition in him which he gruesomely pursues believing he is fully in control. Likewise, the determination of this Macbeth answers question three as his wife is jettisoned, taking control of the plan to murder Duncan and, while encouraged by her, the balance of power lay clearly with the husband, making sense of his decision to act and suffer alone as the initial object is achieved with remarkable ease.

As Macbeth assumed the crown, Anton superbly conveyed the disorder of his mind where regret and paranoia contended, showing how clearly the events he set in motion spun rapidly beyond his control, demanding further bloodshed along with his surety of purpose as the throne came under attack. There was no human agency in Antic Disposition’s approach and, combined with the ever-visible presence of the witches, Macbeth’s struggle to hold on to the trappings of majesty against the tide of fate cost him his sanity and his life. There was a feeling of psychological completeness for the audience as strands of the play intertwined to become a brutal vision of unchecked masculinity that was partly influenced by a film from four years earlier.

The Film Adaptation

There are few versions of Macbeth that compare to Justin Kurzel’s electrifying 2015 film adaptation that transformed the play into an unrelenting two hour thriller. Its key achievement was to draw-out new emphasis from this well-worn story, examining the consequences of military action and the damaging effects of parental bereavement – the result is one of the most powerful and psychologically perfect treatments of Shakespeare’s play that you will find. This insightful approach used the basis of a warlike society and the demands of masculinity to set the parameters of the story, creating the conditions in which the already damaged Macbeth is convinced to kill his friend before being broken by the parade of battlefield ghosts that plague his mind relentlessly.

In this context, the introduction of the witches and their power becomes a reflection of his fractured personality that may or may not be a figment of his splintered mind, and while they haunt the action, Kurzel focuses on the notion of post-traumatic stress (for want of a period appropriate term) and grief for a lost child as the driving forces behind Macbeth’s actions – illuminated through the inclusion of an additional child witch and framed by the funeral of Macbeth’s heir which opens the story. What ensues is, then, the triumph of human agency emerging from the hearts and minds of a damaged couple exhausted by battle and the experience of continual loss, filling their emptiness with murderous enterprise.

There is a pain in denying the maternal that moves Lady Macbeth into a central role here as her sorrow curdles into desperation for progress. Marion Cotillard’s multi-layered performance emphasises the difficulty of being a noblewoman unable to provide a successor in a deeply feudal structure where her status would depend on childbearing unless queenship becomes an alternative, desirable and unchallengeable means of demanding respect. See also her painfully sad soliloquy that portends her madness as she returns to her former home to address the dead child. And Macbeth himself is entirely in her power, their relationship ignited by a sexual chemistry and mutual respect that is so fascinating.

The psychological consequences so carefully established in Kurzel’s vision are expertly played in Michael Fassbender’s astonishing Macbeth who contends so movingly with the scorpions afflicting his mind, a performance that fizzes and burns on the screen as the effects of his actions both before and after the witches’ intervention play out. Kurzel presents a fresh take, so steeped in brutality and danger that this became one of the most psychologically convincing adaptations of Shakespeare’s great anti-hero – something that writer Jo Nesbo also achieved with his own cruel and merciless recreation.

The Novel Adaptation

Norwegian crime writer Jo Nesbo may seem a strange inclusion but his books instantly have an immersive and cinematic quality that made his 2018 novelisation a surprisingly successful rendering of the familiar story which he relocated to the Scandi-influenced world of the Inverness police force. An avowed fan of Shakespeare’s play, Nesbo has openly discussed the influence of Macbeth on his alcoholic detective Harry Hole, so when the chance came to reimagine the Scottish play, Nesbo seemed an appropriate choice. His version departs considerably from other stage and film approaches, offering a modern tale of corruption and power play bathed in a seedy film noir style. In taking very different decisions to the two examples discussed above, Nesbo’s 2018 novel may feel more radical, yet the psychological cohesion of the world he creates is every bit as compelling.

Making Macbeth an aspiring policeman prepared to kill his way to the top job creates different demands on the character and increases the breadth and nature of the interactions that keep him in power. The ambitious officer, by necessity, crosses paths with many powerful men including the Mayor, and while Macbeth kills his Duncan-equivalent early on, Nesbo deliberately holds him back from achieving a wider political power that must act as further motivation for him as he attempts to segue into full management of the city.

In this dark and shady version of Inverness, the great battle is not against other regions within Scotland but with a local, invisible and seemingly untouchable drug lord named Hecat, through which Nesbo poses quite a different interpretation of the supernatural. Fleshing-out Macbeth’s backstory as a reformed addict whose craving for “Brew” becomes a fatal flaw naturally establishes interactions with Hecat’s men who double for the witches. And while there is no actual magic involved, Macbeth still sets his mind and faith to the will of external forces he cannot control.

The page-turning quality of Nesbo’s writing instantly immerses the reader in the scenario he has created as you become increasingly engaged with his expansive realignment of the play including a valuable antagonistic history between MacDuff and Macbeth that colours-in some of the gaps in Shakespeare’s original while providing clear motivation for the other roles with illuminating care. There is no doubt that this is a story of human agency and while Macbeth’s casino-owning partner simply known as Lady is his equal with her own business to run, the protagonist actively pursues his own course (answering questions two and three), while the pull of addiction and lust for power are brought down upon him. It is a fantastic read, told with verve and invention, but it is the vivid complexity and detailed extent of the psychological profile that Nesbo created which makes this novel worthy of comparison with the examples above.

Getting it Wrong

When a version of Macbeth is done well it is gripping, but one duff note in the psychology will bring the whole thing crashing down, as sadly happened to the National Theatre in Rufus Norris’s 2018 attempt which forgot that translating something to a different period setting is no substitute for having a ‘take’ on the play in which its psychological construction becomes credible. Held in a dystopian future after some form of unexplained apocalyptic war – indicated by trees made from bin bags and a central ramp (hill) so steep the poor actors had to tread gingerly to avoid falling over – the court was reimagined as a ragtag group of rebels in concrete bunkers. But the wider implications were less convincingly thought through, materially impacting on the credibility of the play – what exactly was Macbeth killing for in a scenario where nothing existed, what system of aristocracy and government had survived and why did concepts of witchcraft remain?

Without being able to clearly delineate Macbeth’s world order with its fuzzy power structure and limits, this lessened the impact of cause and effect within the play so the production swiftly unraveled. There were witches running in exhausting circles around the stage but their manipulation of events was less certain, few of the incoherent production decisions held together cohesively and psychologically it fell apart. So, by the time Rory Kinnear started awkwardly swiping at the air and wondering if he could see a dagger, it was fatally flawed.

The Psychology of Macbeth

In this brief multimedia examination of the various recent forms Macbeth has taken, it is clear that the very best interpretations have tight control of the character context, creating believable and vivid hierarchies, confines and social structures in which Macbeth’s freedom to operate as a war hero, regicide and tyrant permits and informs his non-linear journey through the story. Whether his lust for power originates in a lack of love for the existing king, his own corrupted grief or mind-altering substances, his resultant actions are crucially bounded by decisions the creative team must make about the role of fate, human agency and the balance of power both within his marriage and the community around him. Build a credible scenario and a credible Macbeth can emerge. Get it right as Ben Horslen and John Risebero, Justin Kurzel and Jo Nesbo did and Macbeth is a blistering thrill-ride of self-destruction, get it wrong and you’re just swiping at imaginary daggers in the air. The psychology is all.

Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


%d bloggers like this: