Category Archives: Shakespeare

Othello – National Theatre

It’s an interesting decision for the National Theatre to tackle Othello again when their last production in 2013 still looms large in the memory even a decade on and available via subscription service, National Theatre at Home. But it was a lifetime ago in theatre terms, under a previous Artistic Director that existed in a quite different cultural and political context to Clint Dyer’s equally contemporary but far darker perspective on a play about systemic racism and the social system stacked against not just Othello but the women of the play as well. And this is a production that recognises its place in the history of performance, scattering the stage with a digital montage of Othello posters and playbills across the centuries including the RSC’s notable version in 2015 with a black actor playing Iago and interpretations from all around the world. Co-designed by Nina Dunn and Gino Ricardo Green, as the audience take their seats, it’s clear that Othello continues to reinvent itself for every generation and that its central messages matter more than ever.

There are a number of striking decisions in this new production designed to emphasise how greatly the scales are weighted against Othello as his rise to power is stymied by jealousy and racial denigration. It may take some time before the audience see them all but the National has deliberately eschewed diversity in its casting making Giles Terrera the only person of colour in the cast, a decision that reflects Othello’s isolation in the play and must have created some interesting tones in the rehearsal room, particularly for the lead actor exploring the unusual position of this character, a self-made man who rises to a position of influence in a world that views his race with suspicion and disdain – and we note early on that the Duke of Venice happily takes advantage of Othello’s military prowess but pointedly refuses to shake his hand.

And Director, Dyer digs deep into this notion in an attempt to deconstruct the inevitability of Othello’s decline despite his soldierly successes. In a brief scene that could have been lifted from Coriolanus, Movement Director Lucie Pankhurst choreographs a sequence in which Othello is successively cheered by the crowd and then jeered as his popularity rapidly wanes. Over the course of the show, Dyer then expands this concept, inserting a bank of silent characters known only as the ‘System’ who become a physical manifestation of the status quo with a vested interest in destroying Othello. They lurk like malevolent spirits behind Iago as he unfolds his dastardly plans to the audience, showing signs of joy and rapture as he derails Othello’s marriage and unbalances his mind, while leaning in hungry for the drama as the tension rises.

It works very effectively, adding both a broader sense of the Venetian society that Iago and Othello represent, mirroring the Duke of Venice’s willingness to use the title character but abstain from him, while drawing out the feeling of an Establishment closing ranks, actively keeping people like Othello on the outside, destroying them if need be. Dyer arranges his intimidating Chorus around Chloe Lamford’s dramatically tiered stage, who, perhaps like the witches in Macbeth, may be driving the action or merely observing it. But the stillness of their chilling presence also speaks to the growing confusion in Othello’s mind, almost becoming the physical representation of the poison that infects him when the sinister System bears down on him in the final portion of the play as he feels a kind of spiritual possession take hold.

They reach their apotheosis with the final deal done over the bodies of the dead. And it adds to the tragedy that, knowing the truth about Iago’s game, no one is then sorry about or for Othello. Here, quite the opposite, after the frenzy of that multiply-murderous scene, the remaining white men forget about the dead laying before them and merely offer new jobs to one another with congratulations. The final insult to Othello that his death, like his life, means nothing to those in the System because power is restored to those who always have it.

Although it may be Dyer’s intention to point the effects of the System towards Othello, the final section of this production also makes clear its effects on the play’s three female roles – Desdemona, Emilia and Bianca – who also suffer its suffocating strictures (quite literally in Desdemona’s case). Women in Othello are treated little better than ‘The Moor’ himself and perhaps even a little worse in some ways. They are routinely disbelieved, suspected of treachery and wantonness and called ‘strumpets’. The plot is built around Desdemona’s supposed adultery and her vibrant sexuality which Shakespeare writes about often in graphic terms, referencing her body and her lusts first for her husband and later for multiple men either accused with or coveting her. She is pitched as a betrayer from the start, deceiving her father to run off and marry Othello which causes a parting between them and after which he dispatches a warning to her new husband about her trustworthiness, a warning that hangs over her character throughout the play.

Notable too is the additional domestic violence subtext that Dyer adds to this production, making Emilia, wife of Iago and maid to Desdemona, a quiet victim of abuse. Appearing with a bandaged elbow at first but later with bruises, her deference to him becomes an important motivational device in which Emilia becomes enmeshed in Iago’s plot against Othello. But it lays the groundwork for Othello’s own acts of violence towards his wife, creating a model for male brutality against women that leaves them with no recourse to justice. Pointedly, no one believes in the virtue of either woman until it is too late.

Bianca too, though featured only briefly, endures taunts about her own chastity and decency, hauled away by soldiers before she can reveal the truth with Shakespeare equally uninterested in what happens to her. The presence of the System is then a multi-layered one that seeks only to protect its own, showing no grief or care for the fate of the people it tramples over so long as it triumphs and is sustained. These harbingers of fate separate this Othello from the National’s 2013 version, reflecting very contemporary concerns about social justice and the inbuilt biases of modern power structures that ultimately deflect and deter even the smallest incursions.

Dyer and Lamford’s vision is a gloomy one, a world of shadows in a classical meets dystopian-utility design that draws out the embedded political processes stacked against Othello and the women, dwarfing and enclosing them even when they think they are the height of their power or happiness. Lamford has created a tiered set, almost ampitheatrical that nods to Greek and Roman democratic tradition upon which the System imperiously sit, watch and guide the action like Olympian Gods observing their instrument Iago. There is something solid and unshakable about the design, a stone edifice that seems carved into the stage representing millenia of stable, unmoving and unchanging power resting with the elite, one that by default creates a pit or arena at the stage level where individuals from outside the System contend for victory and place. Yet, before the story even begins Lamford’s imposing structures shows us that they will always lose.

Michael Vale’s costumes dovetail very neatly into this concept, using military uniforms for men and women as a base but making them feel like everyday wear, a utilitarian consistency in how everyone must dress that suggests a rigid right-wing despotism of the kind that George Orwell might have written. The most obvious allusion is to fascist blackshirts which underpins the racial tension in the play and Vale exclusively uses blue and black in his colour scheme, combining 1930s tailoring with the simplicity of futuristic and orderly design to enhance Lamford, Dunn and Green’s notions of a sad timelessness in which the story of Othello plays out again and again. Vale gives the protagonist only one moment of true power in the play, when he appears after his wedding wearing a tunic that suggest his cultural heritage – also in midnight blue – matched by Desdemona as the pair are momentarily ascendant and in sync before their attempted conformation and assimilation consumes them.

Dyer controls all of this really nicely and while there is no sense of urgency in the performances – with a three hour running time – the methodical destruction of Othello by degrees unfolds with precision, giving space and clarity to all of the complex crossover plots and devices that Shakespeare uses. Iago’s plan are complicated and multi-dimensional with no pre-determined direction at the beginning of the play. Instead he tries a few things out on Othello and others to see if his venom will work and when it does amplifies his plan accordingly. This production is very good at making those moments particularly clear and marrying together the emotional manipulation and linguistic tricks that Iago employs with the trail of physical evidence he creates as the decisive handkerchief is passed between characters. Notable too is Iago’s influence on others and his ability to coerce not just his wife but Michael Cassio and Roderigo which are well presented here.

Terera’s Othello is a complex figure, a doomed tragic hero unable to account for the very different forces that assail him, not recognising the gradations of difference between his own internal jealousy, and the external influences of racism and the System willing him to fail in marriage, job and status. It makes his Othello extremely trusting, taking things at face value be it his wife’s professions of love or Iago’s words, and as a consequence he slips very easily into paranoia which soon consumes him. And Terera charts that descent confidently, creating a sense of the voices plaguing him as doubts and fears drive him to a form of insanity. That this then connects to the masculine aggression for which the Venetians use him makes sense and Terera feeds this into the production’s take on domestic violence and the effect of male rage acted upon female bodies and reputations.

Paul Hilton’s Iago is given leave to be a big, bombastic villain that seems to suit the grandiosity of Lambert’s surroundings, making his character something of the graphic novel baddie. Hilton relishes every word of Iago’s speeches, enjoying the mischief he makes and even when finally caught out, laughing dismissively and with great self-satisfaction. Hilton nonetheless makes his Iago tangibly intimidating, using every inch of his height to tower over Tanya French as the cowed Emilia and dominate any space he is in. That this Iago can choose to stand unnoticed in the shadows while equally forceful when he needs to be be makes him doubly dangerous, leaving the audience in no doubt of the physical strength that matches his vicious oration.

Among the rest of the cast, Rosy McEwen does her best with the fairly thankless role of Desdemona, a little too giggly in the first half perhaps but certainly demonstrating a fighting spirit in the second. French is suitably ambiguous as Emilia who well presents the symptoms of abuse that appear as devotion to her husband but she is ruled by fear, while Joe Bolland makes much of Roderigo as a creepy chancer chasing Desdemona and Rory Fleck Byrne makes a dignified patsy in Cassio. Together with the Ensemble who flesh out the System, the cast convincingly create a sense of society keeping Othello at bay using gesture and body language consistently to isolate and ultimately shape his destruction.

This is a production that has thought very carefully about the things it wants to say and, particularly, what Othello has meant at different points in its performance history. Dyer’s perspective, which has its Press Night this week, is not on fire just yet but it soon will be, bringing a meaningful reflection on Shakespeare’s tale to the stage while clearly distinguishing it from all of those that have come before. Othello continues to resonate not only for its jealousy themes but because now, as in 1604, while the System remains, those on the outside of it will never be safe.

Othello is playing at the National Theatre until 21 January with tickets from £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


The 47th – Old Vic

Cultural reimaginings of the past are fairly commonplace; Robert Harris’s Fatherland wonders what the 1960s would have been like had Germany won the Second World War, Stephen Fry supposes the direction of the twentieth century had Hitler never existed at all in Making History while Dr Who is forever warning his or her companions of the consequences of meddling with historical timelines. But playwright Mike Bartlett has made a bit of an art out of notions of the counter-factual future, an oxymoron perhaps as those facts cannot possibly exist yet, but in Charles III and now in The 47th at the Old Vic, Bartlett grounds his flights of fancy in the knowledge of institutions, people and political tides rooted in the past and present, asking not only from what vantage point should we study contemporary events but when does the future become history?

The 47th is a both a parody and a warning about that future, and while fictionalised Donald Trump’s decision to run for re-election in 2024 may lend itself to easy spoof, Bartlett sets himself the same challenges as he did with Charles III, setting almost the entire play in iambic pentameter and drawing on grand Shakespearean structures to shape this story of dynastic rivalry, power, war and hubris. Capulet vs Montague, The Wars of the Roses, Egyptians vs Romans, Republican vs Democrat, Bartlett creates two great houses through which to explore his themes, deftly moving between camps while building anticipation for a decisive meeting between the rival leaders.

But Bartlett also finds layers of subterfuge, betrayal, resentment and vengeful desires within the family unit, placing the subtle but decisive effects of anguish and rivalries within The Trumps that have classic Shakespearean consequences. Like Richard III and his brothers, Lear’s daughters and Hamlet’s step-father-uncle issues, The 47th draws on tools and structures that Shakespeare employed to unpick the darker underbelly of family relationships in which loyalty and obedience are demanded by blood but rarely given without resentment. And it is this creation of different waves of activity, subplots and themes working through the grandiose framework that bring character depth and gravitas to a play that deals with a man who has become a caricature in an imagined future scenario.

The use of iambic pentameter is distinctive and, like Shakespeare, it is most noticeably spoken by those with elite status, defined by their membership of the inner circle – either as politicians, advisors or intellectuals. A handful of scenes set among the ordinary American Trump supporters use prose as well as stylised and choreographed movement to distinguish the different perspective and vocabulary of these encounters. Although audiences are more used to verse in contemporary plays since Charles III premiered in 2014 with recent successes like Cyrano de Bergerac‘s spoken word and street forms levelling the use of poetic rhythm and vocabulary to convey meaning across an entire show, Bartlett’s writing remains conversational despite the linguistic structures underpinning it, only occasionally ringing a duff note and stiffly drawing attention to itself.

Bartlett also plays with snatches of the Shakespeare canon, lifting concepts or scenarios from specific works, leaving the audience to spot the references. In one of the earliest scenes when Trump is choosing his heir, the writer of course looks to King Lear for an equivalent scene as each Trumpian child states their case for inheriting the mantle. Later Trump himself briefly reaches for the glorious rhetoric of Mark Antony’s funeral speech when he predictably betrays Ted Cruz and turns his audience into a baying mob. There are nods to Macbeth and again to Julius Caesar in the subsequent curse of Cruz’s wife Heidi that brings with it a driving destructive inevitability that defines the rest of the play, while the same influences feed into a Joe Biden sleepwalking scene filled with subconscious trauma. Trump’s own behaviour leans into both Iago and Richard III as his desire for self-preservation brings betrayal upon betrayal. Bartlett employs these nods subtly and sometimes comically, creating confederacy with the omnipotent audience who becomes increasingly complicit with the writer.

Trump himself retains the same ambiguous position in the show that he did in political life, a figure of fun much of the time whose delusions of grandeur offer a warped perspective, but nonetheless a powerful and dominating personality. Regardless of whether anyone in the play respects him or even agrees with his decisions, Bartlett finds the menace that he poses, the straightforward and disruptive charm that appeals to his voting base as well as the tricks of the orator whose bullish approaches to conversation, which rarely require a second voice, demand status. He may be ridiculous but you cannot ignore Donald Trump. The audience may laugh but that’s how he gets in.

And this is how Barlett takes the audience into this imagined story, looking at the morality of political decision-making and the extent to which Trump’s detractors can only truly defeat him by employing the same shady tactics as the 45th President. For those in public office, where should you draw the line between upholding an ethical and decent approach to problem solving and making dubious sacrifices for the greater good? The challenge that Barlett’s Democratic Party members face in The 47th is whether to heed Shakespeare’s advice in The Merchant of Venice – ‘to do a great right do a little wrong’ – and compromise themselves in order to save America.

The context for this within the story is instigated via another big thematic question about the nature of democracy and its protection. This plays out first through Trump’s insistence on throwing out the rule book at every turn, defying debate protocol and tearing up political structures to install cut-throat business practices in their place. His early betrayal of Cruz, the carving-up of the family fortune and his single-minded pursuit of a personal agenda that concentrate wealth and power in his own hands, tearing at the foundations of American public life including the two-term limit for Presidents are all traits grounded in behaviours and opinions expressed by the real Trump in the last six years. And Bartlett doesn’t aim for cheap laughs here, recognising the allure for the powerless of a man who wants to bring a whole system crashing down even if the one he builds in its place is closer to despotism. The notes on equivalent antidemocratic tendencies in Britain’s current Government do not pass unnoticed.

Using Shakespeare’s structural model, Bartlett uses public disorder, violence and chaos as the culminatory vehicle to explore democratic systems as off-stage events shape the actions of the political elite. Like the climactic wars in Antony and Cleopatra, Richard III and particularly Coriolanus, Bartlett creates opportunities for characters on both sides of the political divide to reflect on the causes, consequences and unfolding drama of civil unrest incited by Trump to smooth his path to power. Crisis meetings, plots and plans are mixed with movement pieces featuring riotous Americans led by a shaman that explore the role of mob rule and public protest in the rapid breakdown of democracy. The consequences of populism and Trump’s Joker-like enjoyment of the mayhem he unleashes would have seemed all-too fantastical a few year ago but after the events of January 2021, Bartlett warns that democracy is as fragile as ever and destructive forces are ever-ready to unleash.

Staged by Rupert Goold at the Old Vic, The 47th transforms its traditional proscenium arch into a jutting circular stage that evicts the first few rows of seating and brings the action into the auditorium. While the character of Trump needs little help in drawing attention to himself, Goold brings balance, giving space to other characters who are democratically given soliloquies, asides to the audience and opportunities for political speechifying. On Miriam Buether’s set with its walkways, staircases and back offices, it evokes the feel of the oval office and the complex corridors of power as well as the very public platform that the characters have to speak to the nation. And its big enough to drive on the full scale golf cart that opens the show.

With Barlett’s interest in the boundary between public and private, particularly within the Trump family, Goold frequently employs phone camera technology projected onto the back wall in grainy, distorted black and white as scenes are captured and relayed through social media, an instrument of public goading and insurrection given energy by Adam Cork’s composition and Neil Austin’s atmospheric lighting design. And as these wider elements unfold, the spotlight that Trump claims for himself slowly shifts as Goold brings the decisive figures of Kamala Harris and Ivanka Trump into focus.

Tamara Tunie’s Kamala Harris is the rational, reasonable epicentre of the show and truly Bartlett’s focus. A background figure as Vice President initially treated like a ‘flunkey’ by Trump, The 47th is really about Kamala grappling with duty and the dirty side of power. Tunie is superb, slowly assuming a central position in the play, charting the rise of Harris that brings a feeling of order, calm and rationality to the havoc both within the political system and on the streets of her country. Whether she will succumb to the temptation to use Trump’s methods against him, as the only means of defeat, is a question Bartlett poses on several occasions but Tunie’s dignified and collected performance is really the one to watch.

Lydia Wilson’s Ivanka faces that exact quandary as she too faces the impact of her father’s actions and the testing of her own limits of power. Ivanka is an ambiguous figure for much of the story, a clear killer instinct that quickly dispenses with her rival brothers (a good comedy pairing of Oscar Lloyd and Freddie Meredith as Donald Jnr and Eric) to assume the role of heir, but in later heeding her oldest brother’s warning, the ways in which Ivanka’s approach to dispensing authority and the most legitimate path to power drives a wedge between her and Trump. Wilson takes those cues to create a character who may also be underestimated but will allow little to stand in her way.

Bertie Carvel has taken on two of the biggest political figures of the last 50 years and after winning plenty of plaudits as James Graham’s version of Rupert Murdoch in Ink, his Trump goes beyond a surface imitation to look for the drivers beneath. While there are no surprising revelations – a competitive nature, a blatant sexism and disregard for other opinions and a degree of self-assurance that even Narcissus would baulk at – Carvel finds the switch that makes him so popular, eliciting plenty of laughs from the audience that explain Trump’s appeal entirely. Wearing facial prosthetics and a wig created by Richard Mawbey, it is the kind of extraordinary physical transformation usually seen on film, but Carvel’s Trump has Lear-like rages and a certain inevitability to his trajectory (certainly with Heidi Cruz’s curse hanging over him) but why ordinary people support him is exactly the button Carvel is able to push.

The 47th does have a Shakespearean predictability but when the time comes it slightly fizzles out, and having built a context of conflict and disorder, the conclusion is far smaller in scale than Shakespeare would have chosen. The subplots also suffer as a result, particularly James Cooney’s political aide infiltrating the opposition with Earl of Gloucester overtones. Bartlett is perhaps making the point that for all Trump’s bombast, the conclusion of this story may well be far more muted than dramatic cliché might suggest, but the end does feel a little underpowered on stage. Nonetheless, the race to be the 47th President is just around the corner and Bartlett’s plays distils the events of recent years and encourages us to think carefully about their consequence. In homage to Shakespeare, Bartlett’s smart counter-factual future is a great piece of theatre and while its predictions may seem hopeless, it offers a few surprises along the way.

The 47th is at the Old Vic until 28 May with tickets from £12. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


Henry V – Donmar Warehouse

Henry V is the greatest war play ever written and is the template for all literary responses to conflict since produced. It is the perfect mix of diplomacy gone wrong, of kings and princes vying for conquest, of the burden of leadership and the price of betray. Shakespeare’s play is an exploration of causes and consequences of war, of heritage and dynasty, of honour and glory in the field while being honest about the violence and havoc it causes to civilians, their homes and the landscape. But most of all, Henry V is a play about how war affects all social classes within the army, from the fears and questions of conscience that afflict the boys and private soldiers at the bottom through the commanders and to the man who made it all happen who in one person represents both the terrible and the human face of war.

And its influence is inestimable. It is impossible to avoid the direct connection between Wilfred Owen’s vivid descriptions expressed in the evocative vocabulary of damage and destruction in his First World War poetry and the haunting scene-setting of the Chorus on the night before Agincourt as the ‘creeping murmur and the pouring dark’ descend like a cloak of gloomy anticipation over the English soldiers. And that opportunity to contemplate the soul as men await the terrible events ahead, common to the representation of conflict in popular culture, begins with Henry V and that all-too-recognisable concern about a just war.

Max Webster’s new production for the Donmar Warehouse, set in modern dress, understands the wide-ranging themes of Shakespeare’s play and, across a very swift three hours, triumphantly balances the unstoppable march to war with character development and some of the playwright’s richest verses filled with potent symbolism and stark imagery. Staged on tiered golden steps that become increasingly tarnished by the bloody business of fighting, Webster’s show is a powerful experience, filling the gaps between Shakespeare’s words by providing just enough context to bring the play to life and on the audiences’ ‘imaginary forces work.’

It opens with lights up as Millicent Wong’s Chorus beseeches the viewer to suspend their disbelief and pretend events are really happening before us, a feat that proves easy to achieve as Webster’s production ensues with a thriller-like pace which barely slackens. The first piece of context comes almost immediately with the addition of a scene from Henry IV – Part II in which the drunken Prince Hal carouses with his friends at a nightclub before hearing of the death of his father and leaving his lowly pals for good. It’s a trick Kenneth Branagh employed in his 1989 film version to quickly provide backstory in what is here a standalone play, allowing anyone unfamiliar with the earlier works to instantly understand some of the decisions the new King Henry V will shortly make about his former compatriots.

Important innovations include the decision to play all of the court scenes where no English characters are present in French with subtitle boards providing a translation. It is an insightful choice, one the really underlines the ‘otherness’ of the enemy here while bringing extra credibility to the scenes in which Catherine learns English – during a boxercise session – and in which the awkward lovers attempt to communicate in the broken phraseology of each other’s native tongue. Andrew T. Mackay’s choral and operatic score is also superbly atmospheric and integral to the story, working with the modern conflict design to make it feel as epic and grandiose as Shakespeare’s text while also providing a haunting bass note that opens up the emotional impact of the battle scenes.

Webster also makes swift work of the complex speech in which Jude Akuwudike’s Bishop explains the Salic law that validates Henry’s claim to France. Presented as a (slightly fancier) PowerPoint presentation, this crucial contextual information that justifies military action is shown in family trees and maps that skip along without weighing down the energy of this early part of the play. The extent to which the King of England is right is immediately muddied by the entrance of the Dauphin’s messenger with the infamous tennis balls and, clearly here in the Donmar’s production, Henry’s perhaps impetuous decision-making haunts him and his army for the rest of the play.

Shakespeare largely sets battle scenes off stage so how much time should be given over to recreating some of that action can be difficult for a production to pitch. Here, Webster’s choices emerge from a close reading of the text and the sequence of events within the two major confrontations with French forces. Shakespeare puts the audience in the middle of the action at Harfleur as Henry whips his men into a frenzy as they advance ‘once more unto the breech’. Fly Davis creates a gantry that lowers into place amid the frenzy of smoke, low light and bodies pouring through a gap in the rear wall to emphasise this key moment in which the newly inspired English regroup. But Webster retains most of the impact of these techniques for Agincourt itself and a longer sequence of warplay.

Shakespeare structures this pivotal battle in waves of action interspersed with discussions and discoveries that tell the audience how the fighting unfolds, creating greater drama and suspense as the audience wait to see who will win. Benoit Swan Pouffer creates some tight but evocative movement pieces as actors dressed in flak jackets with guns move in formations around the space to indicate the different stages of the chaotic and immersive battle. It never looks like dance but it is precisely coordinated, reinforcing the prestige of the English tactics in the creation of a distinctly stylistic but nonetheless physical encounter between the opponents.

Scene setting established, Webster’s greatest achievement is to fully excavate the complex and changing dimensions of the King’s character, and while earlier interpretations may have emphasised his unimpeachable glory and heroism, Webster’s show mines Shakespeare’s actually rather ambiguous hero to create a far more satisfying and ultimately tarnished novice monarch desperately trying to assume a mantle of kingship that fits perhaps more easily than he would like to admit.

The character of Henry and his true motivation is one of the play’s biggest mysteries. We fully believe he has thrown-off his youthful ardour for a more sober, responsible form of kingship yet Shakespeare presents a protagonist whose moral compass allows him to be deeply merciful when he needs to be but also phenomenally cold, even cruel when required. At Harfleur he talks the governor into surrendering by threatening rape and pillage if the town fails to concede, passing the fault and blame for that course of action onto the Frenchman. Later, he swiftly calls for the brutal death of an old friend accused of stealing, insisting on a contrasting moral code in which civilians and their property should remain unharmed. Is Henry willing to carry out his threats or, is he merely posturing and politicking for effect – and is either a credible quality?

We see the same swift sense of justice when he discovers the murder of the boys guarding the baggage train at Agincourt – an act that defies the protocols of war – prompting a shocking response that even his own men argue is not only ethically wrong but disproportionate. His subsequent ‘rough wooing’ of Princess Catherine is equally ambiguous, taking on a demanding entitlement which begins as inept soldierly love but becomes something far more toxic. Suddenly, Henry’s response to the disrespectful gift of tennis balls in Act One that questions his kingship may not be quite so clear cut. Is he a merciful or merciless man or something in between.

Unlike other Shakespearean protagonists, crucially, Henry is given almost no opportunity to account for himself or commune with his soul alone on stage. For three acts, the audience sees Henry only in the company of others or by their report, so while Hamlet and even the murderous Macbeth have unpacked their hearts and troubles over and over by the equivalent points in their own stories, Henry has been remarkably silent. Only on the eve of Agincourt is he given one lone soliloquy in which to explore his conscience and reflect on what it means to be a man and the burden of kingship when so many lives rest entirely in his hands. And even here, Shakespeare has primed the audience to once again question the legitimacy of his war through one of the private soldiers he speaks to before this singular moment of self-reflection. The next time we see Henry, he delivers the famous Saint Crispin’s Day speech and he never considers his actions again.

Forget Jon Snow or his earlier theatre work because this is easily Kit Harrington’s finest career performance on stage or screen with a deep and nuanced understanding of these complexities in Henry’s personality and presentation. Harrington is an incredibly controlled Henry (and certainly Harry no longer), calmly and coldly appraising situations before striking a fatal blow with a quiet but distinct menace. There is a deep rage in this Henry that is largely held in check yet in delivering the political speeches and negotiations with the French messenger, with the unseen Governor of Harfleur and even with Catherine, Harrington has a panther-like vocal style, a slow, directed speech pattern that is fluently conversational with the verse while finding all of the imagery and beauty in the text. He delivers demands initially as pleasant and reasoned requests before becoming short-tempered, building to a firmer, formidable insistence in even love.

As a character, Henry appears only in moments across the first three Acts and Harrington is a commanding presence both in the battle scenes where he delivers all the famous speeches with just the right degree of rousing purpose and in political discussions where he seems quite at ease with his public decision-making authority. Yet, Harrington gives his Henry greater depth, the odd look that suggests he is a man struggling with the precepts of duty and responsibility, deeply concerned about his religious and social obligations and wanting to be seen to do the right thing even as he must subdue flickers of personal pain. Delivering that one truly introspective speech, Harrington is extremely good, holding the room entirely alone for the first time and showing his Henry as a man evolving, almost building a carapace around himself as the story unfolds, so while he may feel as keenly as an ordinary citizen, the experience of war and the needs of ceremony harden him forever.

The small supporting cast is very fine playing multiple bilingual gender-blind roles with distinction and providing the soundtrack. Akuwudike is a grand French King eventually humbled by defeat while Oliver Huband is excellent as his entirely objectionable and swaggering Dauphin. Anoushka Lucas gives Catherine more purpose and depth than often seen, while Danny Kirran as Pistol, Melissa Johns as Mistress Quickly, Claire-Louise Cauldwell as Bardolph and Steven Meo as Fluellen make the comedy characters far more integral to the singular direction of the story and less distracting than they can be.

More than a collection of electrifying speeches about Englishness (despite its Irish and Welsh characters in the army), this production really digs deep into Shakespeare’s beautiful verses to link the motivation for and experience of conflict to a very meaningful character study of a monarch we never quite read. A story of leadership and transformation, Henry V is the greatest of war plays and Max Webster’s production really does it justice.

Henry V is at the Donmar Warehouse until 9 April with tickets from £10. The play will be broadcast via NT Live on 21 April. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


From Cruise to Cabaret: Changing Theatre in 2021

Cruise; Cabaret; South Pacific; Spring Awakening; Late Night Staring at High Res Pixels

It has been another complicated year for theatres with venues unable to welcome in-person audiences for more than five months of 2021 and the tail end of the year returning to enforced closure and performance cancellations as Covid once again affects lead cast members, their understudies and backstage crew. In spite of a returning familiar dread, there is, however, cause for hope as we end the year in a more interesting position than we started it with greater representation of all kinds of voices and experiences on our biggest stages, the effects of hybrid theatre continuing to expand audience accessibility and the transformation of the musical with several major works receiving a ground-breaking twenty-first century rethink.

New Voices and New Work

The long closure of theatre buildings has had far reaching consequences, and while the 2020 lockdowns and birth of hybrid forms gave regional theatres a national platform that transformed engagement with their work, promising much for future audience reach, in 2021 the eventual reopening of auditoria from May meant that any fears producers would only bet on safe, cash-generating productions with established performers in well-known plays were partially allayed.

In fact, one of the most inspiring trends this year was the refreshing arrival of fringe productions at major West End venues, a charge led by producer Katy Lipson through her Aria Entertainment company who brought Public Domain and then the brilliant Cruise to temporarily abandoned playhouses usually taken up with long-running shows. Cruise, which began as an online monologue, is one of the shows of the year, an outstanding one-man piece by Jack Holden about living through the Aids epidemic in 1980s Soho – a story that entirely deserved its West End platform representing as it did an essential period of modern British history. Lipson also oversaw the hugely acclaimed transfer of The Last Five Years from Southwark Playhouse to the Garrick where its stellar central performances from Molly Lynch and Oli Higginson played to packed houses. Shows that would almost certainly have been denied a transfer in the pre-Covid West End proved to be a shot of adrenaline, demonstrating a need to keep thinking differently about the shows that can attract audience and critical respect if given this wider platform.

Concerns that new plays and voices opening directly in major venues may be overlooked were quickly stamped out by super-producer Sonia Friedman who was among the first to promote new writing at the reopened Harold Pinter Theatre with the Re:Emerge season, a triple bill of plays from playwrights debuting in the West End – Waldren (though the weakest) was later filmed for a cinema release, the lively J’Ouvert set at the Notting Hill Carnival had a digital pre-life in the BBC’s Lights Up series and the superb Anna X was also filmed for Sky Arts and screened over Christmas. The latter in particular used innovative video design to underscore its central premise about the fluid nature of contemporary identity and image creation.

Established writers also offered plenty of challenging new work including Bess Wohl’s Camp Siegfried which simultaneously proved to be a fascinating political piece about the thoughtless extremism of youth while providing one of the biggest treats of the year by uniting two of theatres most luminous rising stars Luke Thallon and Patsy Ferran in a memorable theatre moment. Likewise, James Graham’s Best of Enemies was an absorbing exploration of current political debate, tracking back to the late 1960s to chart the origins of celebrity-focused and sensationalist news media in the entertaining but deeply thoughtful style that has become Graham’s trademark

Dramatic Revivals and Hybrid Approaches

But new work was not the only place where theatremakers applied novel interpretations, and several impressive productions offered fresh insight into well-known plays. The National Theatre’s revival of The Normal Heart became a companion piece for Cruise in its first production for more than 30 years. This significant staging was notable for its strong performances including an emotional central character for Ben Daniels, another increasingly fascinating choice for Daniel Monks and an accomplished role for Luke Norris, collectively finding meaningful dimension in a play that not only reasserted its position as a modern classic but also its credentials as activist theatre.

Similarly, Lyndsey Turner’s reworking of Under Milk Wood also at the National proved extremely meaningful in a frame by Sian Owen uniting father and son to overcome memory loss with beautifully pitched performances from Karl Johnson and Michael Sheen. Antony Almeida made an equally distinct impression with his English Touring Theatre production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof opening at Curve Leicester that proved a fiery and gripping portrayal of self-destruction that relished Tennessee Williams’s heat-oppressed classic.

And while the reopening of theatres in May has reduced the availability of streamed content, playmakers have continued to respond creatively to the possibilities that digital theatre offers. A major highlight was Athena Stevens’s binge-worthy drama Late Night Staring at High Res Pixels, a fascinating multi-part duologue released in daily 5-8 minute doses in February that used exquisite visual design to enhance its story of coercive relationships, toxic masculinity and female culpability in a memorable and genre enhancing collaboration with the Finborough Theatre – notable that smaller venues are still making big leaps in helping the industry to broaden its creative approach to storytelling and engagement.

Likewise, the National Theatre’s productions of Romeo and Juliet as well as the latest instalment of Clint Dyer and Roy Williams’s Death of England series Face to Face, took advantage of the empty Lyttleton to rethink the presentation of theatre stories. Working in partnership with Sky Arts and making these works available for free on the channel to a worldwide audience as well as selective cinema releases, they were filmed in usually unseen backstage areas, blurring the boundaries between stage and screen. These works continue to experiment with alternative staging models, thinking differently about theatre buildings, as well as how and where playing spaces can and should exist – a train of thought that should continue to evolve as the balance between audience engagement in specific rooms and wider forms of international engagement continues to expand.

A New Golden Age of Musicals

Throughout the pandemic, musical theatre responded best to the hybrid opportunities presented by theatre closure and, throughout 2020, it was notable how rapidly the industry reacted with new work, concert sessions and anthology shows like The Theatre Channel taking advantage of sophisticated filming techniques long before their drama counterparts. In 2021 two key themes dominated the year – promising new work performed in streamed concert try-outs and the rethinking and reimagining of classic musicals for a twenty-first century audience, picking up on a thread from 2019-20, by setting aside performance history and returning to the original text and songs.

Linnie Reedman and Joe Evans’s Gatsby: A Musical was a digital highlight of the 2021 lockdown, performed as a streamed concert from Cadogan Hall in February, focused on Daisy Buchanan in the years after Fitzgerald’s story. This elegiac and smart reimagining became a full staging at Southwark Playhouse that runs into next year. In the same month, Ricky Allan premiered an early working-version of Treason: The Musical, also streamed from Cadogan Hall, which promises much as the creators continue to work on their potentially explosive Gunpowder Plot story, even releasing a selection of teaser songs on 5 November. The development of this show is one to watch in 2022.

Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre has led the way with fresh takes on classic shows in recent years with reworked version of Jesus Christ Superstar and Jamie Lloyd’s production of Evita. This year, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel was given a contemporary shakeup, tackling the issue of domestic abuse head-on by allowing barker Billy Bigelow to feel regret but denying him the happy and heavenly redemption arc his creators intended. This darker vision of the story set in a Lawrencian working class community proved a welcome counterpoint to the bubbly Hollywood version that had dulled these themes, helping audiences to engage with the show’s troubling underbelly and behaviours.

Equally revelatory, Chichester Festival Theatre produced a thrilling retelling of another Rodgers and Hammerstein masterpiece, South Pacific directed by Daniel Evans that addressed the story’s racial stereotyping while excising the romanticism from the arguably coercive and exploitative relationships between American soldiers and young native women. Choreographer Ann Yee found meaningful ways to express the concept of occupation and invasion – of which the American forces were equally guilty – to create a more forbidding adaptation that allowed South Pacific to confront its demons. The show will be streamed for £15 on New Year’s Eve, followed by a UK tour and residency at Sadler’s Wells in 2022 ensuring this significant restaging will reach a much wider audience.

But this astonishing year for musical theatre was not quite done with two late additions cementing a new direction for the genre. The Almeida’s Spring Awakening, opening in mid-December, has an extraordinary youthful vigour generated by its enormously talented early career cast who have found a deep maturity in this coming-of-age tale of doomed romance and disaffection. As fresh and purposeful as theatre can be, choreographer Lynne Page created some of the finest work of the year in a powerful and definingly simple version of Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik’s show that is testament to everything musical theatre can be.

And defining is precisely the word for Rebecca Frecknall’s breath-taking reworking of Cabaret, one of the greatest shows of any year. If a single production can exemplify the combined advances and visionary approaches applied to theatre in 2021, then Cabaret has distilled them all by entirely reconsidering its source material and offering a more representative cast particularly within its two dance crews. Frecknall – notably a drama director – has brought an incredible new resonance to the story, exploring the shadowy tones of Isherwood’s original novella to bring an added emotional and social depth to Kander and Ebb’s version of Cabaret. This innovative interpretation will certainly affect future engagement with this piece which is everything you want a successful revival to do.

So what does this mean for theatre in 2022? There are positive signs that if venues can remain open then the variety of work we are seeing, how it is cast and, crucially, the platform it is given continues to change while engagement with hybrid styles have a significant role to play as venues commit to streaming some evenings across the run, while looking to innovative television and film partnerships to make work more widely available. The work itself is likely to continue the pre-pandemic trend for simplified staging which will help classic play and musical revivals to mine their original text for greater emotional, political and social resonance.

With big productions of The Glass Menagerie staring Amy Adams, Aaron Sorkin’s To Kill a Mockingbird, the resumption of Jamie Lloyd’s season including a return for Cyrano and The Seagull, as well as Kit Harington in Henry V for the Donmar, Taron Egerton and Jonathan Bailey in Cock directed by Marianne Elliot at the Ambassadors, and a further collaboration between Ruth Wilson and Ivo van Hove (The Human Voice) at the Harold Pinter, there are plenty of major shows lined up all with the capacity to rethink approaches to these plays for contemporary viewers. This year has demonstrated that West End audiences are more open to a broader selection of shows, voices, experiences and performers representing different communities and identities. So the message for 2022 is a simple one – just keep making room.

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The Tragedy of Macbeth – Almeida Theatre Live Stream

The Tragedy of Macbeth - Almeida Theatre (by Marc Brenner)

With the return to live theatre and the excitement of season announcements running months ahead, the energy and enthusiasm for hybrid approaches has noticeably died down. Perhaps that is inevitable given the long period of closure, but it hasn’t disappeared completely, particularly among smaller venues whose limited physical capacity can be considerably expanded with live streaming of sold-out shows. And the model for this is something venues are quietly experimenting with, enhanced by the National Theatre’s recent announcement that its NT Live cinema screenings will resume in 2022. The question for theatres is how to find a judicious balance between in-person and other forms of content that valuably enhance its artistic programme and access requirements.

At present, venues are taking quite different approaches to providing online content. The Donmar recently recorded its Constellations series performed at the Vaudeville Theatre and is now offering them in a rentable ‘as live’ archive format, much as the National Theatre has done with its past production catalogue available via its subscription service National Theatre at Home. But these two organisations are also joining forces to bring Kit Harrington’s February turn in Henry V to a cinema audience in a mixed model approach.

Over at the Young Vic, there is a commitment to screening all of its big shows at some point during the run, offering a selection of dates once public performances have begun and looks to the NT Live approach of having in-person and online audiences simultaneously, something that requires careful organisation and camera placement to give both an equally weighted experience. The Old Vic managed this with its version of The Dumb Waiter, although future support for the In-Camera series, of which it was becoming quite adept, remains uncertain with no plans to broadcast future shows as yet.

The Almeida, however is taking an entirely different approach again, providing a Half Term week of online-only performances for its immersive and atmospheric but oversubscribed production of The Tragedy of Macbeth starring James McArdle and Saoirse Ronan. The theatre is relatively new to the live stream programme, but it made a sparking entrance into this new market place with its debut online production of Lolita Chakrabarti’s Hymn which was later fully staged once the venue reopened. And with this live-stream-focused Macbeth, it offers director Yael Farber a very different medium to present her three-hour show, giving the cast four nights to play to the camera rather than trying to divide their attention between the house and your house. The result is a focused piece with a cinematic flair that merges film and theatre forms to create a truly hybrid experience.

But let’s start with Macbeth and the production choices that the camera is attempting to capture; Farber’s interpretation is a representative version of Scotland with a simplified militaristic design that favours clean lines and plain, unpatterned fabrics. Although not announced in advance, the production seems designed with the cinema screen in mind, a feature of Farber’s decision-making generally in the creation of symbolic hinterland spaces where the focus can be on character and text. The blue and white colour scheme gives The Tragedy of Macbeth a noir quality without the melodrama that looks rich and shadowy on screen, especially when punctuated by stark white light, while retaining a warmth that draws out both the darkness and passion in the text. With water and plastic screens used to create self-reflective surfaces, there is a painterly visual language that is strong and deep, translating well through the camera by creating a captivating and claustrophobic space in which to situate the drama.

Crucial to the success of any Macbeth are the character choices the Company make which determine how the play should function. Here, the leading couple are driven by pure ambition and while the be-suited three witches plant the seed, the ensuing drama emerges, quite consistently from the couple’s actions and their unforeseen consequences. With characters on stage throughout (which would be more visible to the theatre audience as the close-up camera only captures them fleetingly), the Wyrd Sisters are used to focus our attention on the couple and crucial private moments where decisions are made and where the course of events is determined.

As Big Mama points out in Cat On a Hot Tin Roof, the marriage bed is the rocks of the relationship and what happens in it affects the unity of the couple. And so it proves here as Farber stages intimate scenes of conspiracy and the growing distance between the Macbeths in their bedroom. The Wyrd Sisters are seen to hold on to their bedsheets between scenes and are ritualistically tasked with making the bed before the couple use it. It is a clever piece of symbolism that aligns the unity of the couple with their own eventual destiny, and as Macbeth is increasingly absorbed into his own paranoia, the once physical and passionate relationship observed on his return from war becomes about two isolated people driven apart by their ambition as well as their differing responses to the crime, all emerging from and reflected in the state of their marriage bed.

Productions often struggle with Macbeth’s character trajectory which is wavering and uncertain throughout the play so unlike most Shakespearian villains, Macbeth is plagued with deep conscience and is not a character who announces his dastardly resolution at the start as Iago or Richard III do while inviting the audience to sit back and watch a malicious plan unfold. Instead, Macbeth uses his soliloquies to examine his own feelings of guilt that constantly attack his purpose, preventing a linear progression from soldier to murderer to tyrant-king. And this is something that Farber’s approach recognises, building in these moments of doubt and confusion as Macbeth moves through the story.

It is also notable how Shakespeare uses ghosts in this play to enhance those questions of culpability and regret. Justin Kurzel’s exemplary 2015 film took a PTSD angle showing a warrior already steeped in the blood of men who died under his command in battle who reappear to him throughout. Farber’s production doesn’t emphasis this but notes the value of Banquo’s ghost in determining Macbeth’s mental state and as a manifestation of his guilt that rapidly affects his sanity. And while the ghost-figure in Hamlet appears not to his murderer but to the avenger as a prompt to action, here, Farber reinforces the connection between conscience and Macbeth’s fluctuating development that constantly second-guesses itself, retreating and advancing in ways that add depth to the production.

So, McArdle’s protagonist travels well through these complex stages, bringing out the changing psychology of the character which suits the intimate proximity of Farber’s cameras which weave in and around the action, barely acknowledging the theatrical space in which it takes place. It takes the audience right into the emotional and mental experience of Macbeth. Lady Macbeth is the driving force – another clear decision – in the first part of the play, shaming her husband into action and questioning his manly resolution. Later, as the rewards of their horrific deed become tangible, McArdle opts for an instant plunge into madness that explores Macbeth’s fractured thinking while couching his subsequent tyranny in these terms, as a mind beyond reason.

Less successful is actually encouraging the audience to like or to care about Macbeth as an early antihero, and this interpretation though convincing in its presentation of the ambitious warrior driven to madness by his own lust for power and his failure to calculate the consequences of achieving it, doesn’t quite capture the comradely charisma that made Macbeth not only a beloved leader of men in battle but subsequently the obvious and entirely unchallenged choice for monarch following Malcolm’s flight into exile. There is something deeply alluring in the character of Macbeth, a man somehow not beyond redemption through his self-awareness, making him fascinating and enduringly appealing to actors and audiences centuries on.

This separates him from Claudius, Iago or Richard III who have a love-to-hate quality, but there is nothing of the soap opera villain about Macbeth and instead his very human failings give him some of the hero-protagonist characteristics of self-reflection, moral consciousness and even a linguistic dignity and gravitas that Shakespeare instils in his other leading characters that encourages the audience to contemplate aspects of their own behaviour. Despite an otherwise nuanced and thoughtful approach, McArdle’s Macbeth doesn’t quite reach that attractive leader of men quality and so the viewer is never fully on his side despite ourselves which makes a three hour performance hard to sustain.

There is also a lack of romantic chemistry between McArdle and Ronan that is quite exposed onscreen and, in fact, the performances are far stronger when the leads move apart in the second half of the production. Ronan, making her UK stage debut is clearly an accomplished film actor and brings some interesting depths to a slightly expanded role of Lady Macbeth that takes over occasional lines from other roles that reinforce the development of a character trumped by her own ambition. Ronan is too light ahead of Duncan’s murder, with insufficient grounding to talk of regicide in the same tone as planning a dinner party, but Ronan builds the character from there.

A very meaningful decision places her at the home of the Macduffs and forces her to witness a slaughter she has failed to prevent – much as Marion Cotillard’s Lady Macbeth is present at an equally brutal scene in Kurzel’s film. With little explanation in Shakespeare’s text for her madness, the slow detachment from her husband and her horrified reactions to his tyranny make perfect sense for her character and Ronan is excellent in presenting Lady Macbeth’s destruction as the consequence of unexpected and graphic violence emanating from her husband’s loss of control. Although the wife of a soldier in active wartime, Ronan makes clear the protected life she has led in comparison, with Duncan’s ruined corpse her first taste of the terrible acts that her husband is in theory far more used to ordering and seeing.

The onscreen experience gives the supporting roles plenty of space and there is greater clarity in the factions that spill out from Duncan’s murder with Malcolm and particularly Macduff given a solid purpose in trying to restore the balance in Scotland’s government. Emun Elliott s Macduff is particularly affecting, a once loyal friend turned bitter enemy. Showing the close and loving family playing together around the court and good friends with the central couple as well as the implication of a loving marriage with Akiya Henry’s Lady Macduff is well captured on camera and vital to explaining Macduff and Lady Macbeth’s development. And in a production in which male emotion is embraced, Elliott brings a visceral intensity to the scene where he learns of his family’s brutal demise that transcends the screen, displaying a considerable range and suggesting he might be well cast as Macbeth himself.

This approach to The Tragedy of Macbeth feels incredibly rich and, despite a slow start, once the first murder has taken place, the show builds considerable tension on screen. It’s not perfect but it is cinematic, and the Almeida’s decision to pause in-person performances for a week to produce this live stream has offered interesting possibilities in the staging and style that doesn’t need to find compromises that suit simultaneous presentation in two different forms. With live streaming potentially allowing more people to see the show internationally in one night than across the entire run, and the chance to rent it as an archive show subsequently, there may be different creative approaches to how hybrid theatre now operates in practice, but the model continues to evolve as venues find their feet.

The Tragedy of Macbeth was live streamed on 27-30 October and runs at the Almeida Theatre until 27 November. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


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