Category Archives: Shakespeare

The Dresser – Duke of York’s Theatre

The Dresser - Duke of York's Theatre

Everyone loves a bit of backstage drama and the West End has frequently welcomed successful runs of a number of ‘behind-the-scenes’ comedies – in the last few years alone there have been versions of Noises Off, The Play That Goes Wrong franchise and Harlequinade. But while these shows mock the silliness of actors and play-up the slapstick humour of putting on a play, there is also a darker more tragic side to an endless life on the road, to actors forcing themselves to play the same role night after night, and the difficulties of company hierarchy, which Ronald Harwood’s 1980 play The Dresser illuminates. In order to give an exemplary and memorable onstage performance do the very best actors need to suffer off-stage? And if they do, are there enough people to make sure they go on in time?

Currently playing at The Duke of York’s Theatre after a brief national tour, Reece Shearsmith and Ken Stott take on the leading roles in Harwood’s much-loved tale. It’s an hour before a performance of King Lear and veteran actor “Sir” is missing while his dresser Norman paces anxiously around the tiny dressing room, covering for his famous master. After a beleaguered tour, the icy stage manager decides to cancel the show, but just in time Sir arrives, drunk and emotional. With 30 minutes till curtain up Norman not only has to get his star dressed but deal with his histrionics while reminding him what play he’s doing. Will Sir make it to the stage and even if he does can he get through the performance without giving himself away.

Harwood’s play is largely a two-hander and so much then rests on the chemistry between the leads. A recent acclaimed televised version united Ian McKellen (as Norman) with Anthony Hopkins (as Sir), and while reading any critical reviews of this latest version and you’ll see mention of the 1983 film with Tom Courtenay and Albert Finney which many believed definitive. But nothing in theatre is ever really definitive, and this new version, directed by Sean Foley brings its own interpretation and flavour to the play, while evoking the freedom and defiance of the wartime generation.

In particular the dual relationship with celebrity is one that continues to fascinate us, embodied in The Dresser by the character of Norman who both loves the proximity to greatness that his job affords him, a role of which he is fiercely protective, while simultaneously loathing aspects of the man he has devoted his life to. What is interesting about Shearsmith’s performance is how effectively we see beneath Norman’s obsequious surface to the deeply ingrained bitterness below, yet he continues to value and covet the private access he has to Sir. There is considerable complexity here as Shearsmith presents a man who in a sense has sacrificed his own life and individualism to devoted service, but remains fully cognizant of his master’s flaws and resentful not just of others trying to come between them, but of the lack of gratitude from his employer.

One the most fascinating aspects of this play is seeing these undercurrents slowly emerge, and while the role of Norman is less outwardly showy than Sir, it is, in some ways, trickier to elucidate this bundle of repression, bile and, at times, personal despair. But Norman is far more than a pseudo-butler and Shearsmith plays-up his intelligence and shrewdness in keeping the angry theatre company at bay while he gets Sir stage-ready, as well as having an equally detailed knowledge of Shakespeare plays which comes in handy when frequently correcting his star’s mistakes. Although we clearly see that Norman is superior to his master, we also have to believe that he has invested enough in the relationship to have stayed for decades, and Shearsmith navigates that line very successfully.

By contrast, the role of Sir requires considerably more ebullience, and a kind of entitled indulgence for his behaviour. In Ken Stott’s performance, the audience sees a man who is entirely self-involved and, while incapacitated by drink and its consequences for much of the early part of the play, has little regard for those relying on him to pull it together and put on a show. His emotions seem to teeter on the brink of anger and complete collapse which Stott makes both fascinating and almost sympathetic. In Stott’s take on the character we see Sir continually battling his physical incapacity – brought about by age, drink and exhaustion –becoming a metaphorical tug-of-war between his mind and his body.

Here too we see that the effect of one day of over-imbibing reflects a lifetime of issues that culminate in this mini-breakdown, showing us the tougher side of an artistic life – endless nights on the road, random rooms and a series of failed relationships, alongside the pressure and expectation for a more successful actor that they will deliver a mind-blowing performance every night for the expectant paying audience. Stott’s Sir is certainly petulant and frustrating to manage, arrogant and domineering, but he’s also a man crippled by self-doubt about the rather transactional relationship others have with his artistic credibility.

And this challenge between artistic authenticity and making-do for commercial survival is at the heart of director Sean Foley’s revival, and as we see aspects of their King Lear from backstage, we see how frantically this company try to keep the show on the road with makeshift approaches that mirror their wartime era. These sections have much in common with Noises Off and Harlequinade as they descend into semi-farce, temporarily lifting the more serious tone of the dressing-room scenes, as anxiety over whether the shambling Sir will make it onto the stage after missing several cues and who will operate the thunder machine, becomes acute.

The wider cast is less well drawn by Harwood, giving us a surface engagement with a number of stereotypes including a fading actress, stoney-faced stage manager, novice actress and younger serious thesp, all of whom pop in and out of the action. Her Ladyship (a private joke with Sir) is given added meaning by Harriet Thorpe, emphasising the difficulty of being a lead actress beyond a certain age, who hasn’t achieved anything like the acclaim of her leading man. It’s clear she genuinely cares for him and the character is key to revealing the political factions backstage. There is a tender moment with Selina Cadell’s stage manager whose icy disapproval begins to make sense, but otherwise the creation of the secondary plots is as slapdash as their production of Lear.

The revolving set is used to marvellous effect in both the more intimate shabby dressing room and the expansive backstage scenes, moving seamlessly between them, and reiterating the collision of private and public life that this play considers. Meanwhile the sound design links the experience of a World War Two bombardment with the emotional collapse of this jaded company enduring one more attack from its volatile star player. With our ongoing fascinating with celebrity and their lives off-camera, The Dresser still feels pertinent to our times, especially with Shearsmith and Stott bringing new meaning to its fractious central relationship.

The Dresser is at The Duke of York’s Theatre until 14 January. Tickets start at £10 (although most are from £25) and are also available on Last Minute from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1

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Were We Entertained? Reviewing a Year of Branagh Theatre

branagh-theatre

In a little over two weeks the curtain will come down on The Branagh Theatre Company’s (KBTC) year-long season at The Garrick. It opened last October with The Winter’s Tale and Harlequinade / All on Her Own in repertory – starring acting heavyweights Judi Dench, Michael Pennington and Zoe Wannamaker – it scooped-up the West End transfer of Red Velvet, before French farce The Painkiller in March with Rob Brydon. Romeo and Juliet followed in May with rising stars Lily James and Richard Madden, before ending with the elegiac The Entertainer which opened at the end of August. Twelve months, six plays and several star names later, but what has the company achieved and what does this mean for London theatre?

The concept of the actor-manager goes back almost 500 years but became more common in the Victorian era, with Henry Irving being the most successful, before the professionalization of backstage roles altered the ways in which the commercial and artistic development of shows were managed. Kenneth Branagh’s has himself attempted the role before in the Renaissance Theatre Company from 1987-1992 which combined a variety of fringe, West End and touring shows over several years before branching out into the films that eventually took Branagh away from the theatre. Coming back to it nearly 25 years later is, then, an interesting choice – possible a sense of unfinished business for the youthful Branagh that has culminated in this series of new productions.

In many ways the season felt like a coming together of the last two decades of Branagh’s career, working with people he likes and knows well, while integrating his knowledge of film and TV techniques with his arguable preference for fairly classic-forms of theatre production. The most damning criticism levelled at his productions by the critics has been that they are ‘old-fashioned’, but even if you consider them to be – and I’m not sure I do – there is a place for the traditional alongside the innovative in the London theatre landscape, as the popularity of fairly straightforward touring productions would suggest.

But Branagh and his co-director Rob Ashford have taken risks both in the interpretation of some elements of the text and in the production values that speak to some of the modern trends in current theatre. It was Romeo and Juliet that copped-it most from the critics with what was, in my view, an overly harsh blasting of the interpretation and male lead performance. Instead I saw an attempt to play-up the more comic elements of the text, particularly in the balcony scene which became less mushy and more in tune with out slightly derisory take on modern love, that would appeal to the younger crowd attracted by the TV-star leads.

Likewise critical comment on his interpretation of The Entertainer mostly centred around the fact it wasn’t the same as the Olivier production, whereas Branagh’s interpretation of the lead role was necessarily different and extremely poignant, creating a fluidity between the scenes that is a mark of modern approaches to direction. In difficult circumstances, it added fresh insight into a play that is still tainted by the ghosts of its earlier performers.

The ‘old-fashioned’ tag that dogged the series can also be seen as a deliberate choice and actually part of a wider engagement with the biggest theatrical innovation of the twenty-first century – the live cinema screening. Branagh and Ashford’s presentation of Romeo and Juliet was like a 40s Fellini film in black and white. Now, that shouldn’t be the sole preoccupation of directors, but the way we consume theatre, particularly outside of London, is changing and a cinema broadcast could potentially reach more people in one night than attend an entire run, so it was interesting to see that they quite carefully incorporated ideas on how this would look into their finished stage version. The Winter’s Tale and, this week, The Entertainer were also broadcast so, increasingly production teams have an eye for the cinematic – even when it’s not being broadcast as the spectacular Red Barn currently at the National Theatre demonstrates – and while this may affect the staging and interpretation of live performance to a degree, it’s also something that’s not going away.

We should also remember that this was an inaugural season and without knowing what reaction the suite of productions would elicit or whether there was even a market for them, it seems natural that Branagh and co would play it safe both on the choice of shows and in choosing a bankable cast to attract audiences. It may not seem it now we’ve seen them, but the inclusion of Terence Rattigan’s Harlequinade, a 50s slapstick vehicle that was considerably out of fashion, and the French farce The Painkiller were both notable risks among the more sellable Shakespeare and modern classics. Yet critics and audiences generally loved them, adding much needed levity to a dramatic season and giving Branagh in particular a rare chance to show his comedic skill. Harlequinade especially has been given a new lease of life and we may see it crop-up more regularly in regional and touring productions, while the obsession with life behind-the-scenes that the play captures has arguably marked out an audience who may also be interested in the current revival of The Dresser.

As a new company, Branagh Theatre has also relied on star-power to attract audiences, not just the chance to see Branagh himself – having not appeared in London for 8 years – but in enticing well-loved names like Judi Dench and Derek Jacobi to bolster ticket sales. But this is something that every theatre is doing whether it has a company season or not and looking around the West End this year much of what you see is established star vehicles – from No Man’s Land with Stewart and McKellen next door, to Faustus with Kit Harrington, the stage return of Michael Crawford in The Go-Between and a bevy of others. Yet, this season has also given room to acting’s rising stars like Tom Bateman and Jessie Buckley, as well as some fresh-out of drama school graduates who have the chance to learn in exulted company – a training that was also offered to young directors associated with the KBTC. The creation of community and support for development is one of the vital roles a Company structure can play in developing the careers of young performers and the production team – what effect this will have on the individuals involved will be seen in the coming years but, while it may be less obvious to audiences, it is a meaningful way to induct new creatives into the profession.

So what does all of this mean for theatre and where should the KBTC go from here? London is never short of good plays but a Company season always feels a bit special, a collection of plays with something particular to say. And this first grouping took an affectionate look at the nature of theatre and theatre people, as well as examining a particular kind of human desperation – either born of love, loneliness or failure that have made Branagh’s own performances a significant highlight. But there have been companies before and will be again, whether this one survives remains to be seen.

We should hope for a second season in a year or two, but one that having now established itself, can be afford to be more experimental in its allocation of leading roles, in style of production and even in the incorporation of new writing among the classics. The choice of the Garrick was to some degree an unfortunate one, a lovely restored theatre, but the raking is too slight and the curvature of the auditorium so pronounced that many seats have a restricted view – although these were priced accordingly – but maybe somewhere like the Wyndhams would be better.

The commercial success and revenues generated by the inaugural Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company season may not be known for some time, but performances always felt full, while, artistically, on balance, it should be considered a success, presenting a variety of interesting and accessible work that created a genuine sense of anticipation and a clear affection among its audiences. Not least, the opportunity to see Branagh himself after so long an interval from the London stage has been a pleasure, and one we should hope will be soon repeated. Roll on season two!

The inaugural season of the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company ran from 17 October 2015 – 12 November 2016 (when The Entertainer ends). The Entertainer will be broadcast live to cinemas on Thursday 27 October.


Shakespeare reFASHIONed: Much Ado About Nothing – Selfridges

shakespeare-refashioned

Much Ado About Nothing is such a summer favourite and so frequently performed that you might feel you’ve seen it all too many times before. You know the plot so well that you anticipate every twist and turn before they happen, look out for the milestone moments and find yourself zoning out during the no longer quite so hilarious distractions and diversions of the Watch which just prolongs the resolution of the central love stories and evil machinations of Don John. Like A Midsummer Night’s Dream it’s too frequent repetition by multiple companies in mainstream theatre and the fringe has become a burden, dulling the edges of one of Shakespeare’s finest comedies.

Yet the announcement that innovative theatre company The Faction was about to put on a slick 90 minute performance in a pop-up theatre in Selfridges had me instantly looking for tickets.  This youthful troupe has quite an impressive reputation and I’ve professionally reviewed their work at the New Diorama several times, enjoying their novel approach and application of wide-ranging technique to add insight to established classics. At the start of this year their Richard III was so impressive it was clear they were had solidified their place as the best performers of Shakespeare on the fringe, with a show that allowed its leading character to only show his physical deformity when his self-belief was challenged and at all other times the audience saw Richard as he saw himself – a super-human. It showed an understanding of the text and its central character that was both inventive and yet perfectly in tune with the tone of the original work, and it meant that any production by The Faction  is well worth a look.

On Selfridges Lower Ground Floor is the reFASHIONed theatre, which uses a catwalk-style traverse stage through the centre of the small room with the audience facing each other, as the actors appear from around the auditorium. As with most Faction productions, this version of Much Ado is simply staged with minimal set and props but a touch of modern glamour is added with coloured light panels along the stage and its pillars, as well as the integration of video screens that give this fresh adaptation a claustrophobic feel that emphasises the several instance of spying and deception in the text.

Typically for this company, the interpretation has a very young and vibrant feel to it, not just in the drastically reduced run time but also in the very nice staging of the early masked ball, which here becomes a frenzy of lights and bodies to a thumping sound track. With many of the older characters hoofed-out of this production or reduced to sparse video messages, we’re left largely with a group of youngsters desperate to party – the men because they’ve returned from war craving female company and escape; the women because they’ve been trapped in the villa for months without any potential husbands to flirt with. Much hilarity is drawn from the vibrant drunken revelry that ensues as romantic marriage deals are secured as easily as seedy bunk-ups.

And this slick enthusiasm is a constant feature of the show which keeps the action moving at an impressive pace without the distraction of the subplots and characters. But, having seen several Faction productions there was an edge missing from this one. One of the features of this company is their inventive application of physical theatre to reinforce a fresh interpretation of classic texts, which works to such impressive effect in the bare black box of the New Diorama. In their Richard III earlier this year, they created two thrones from the bodies of eight cast members, or in their Joan-of Arc last year choreographed some brutal fight scenes in slow motion that added considerably to the drama. Here in what seems a bigger budget approach to Much Ado, it has lost some of that Faction physical flair which if you’ve never seen them before you won’t notice but for regulars is a sadly absent hallmarks.

The performances are impressive and convincing, though, and the success of any version of this play hinges on the central pairing of Beatrice and Benedick, here played with verve by Alison O’Donnell and Daniel Boyd. Benedick in particular is too often portrayed as a swaggering hero, but Boyd nicely subverts our expectation by making him a slightly unsure of himself hipster in a patterned shirt and too short trousers. Boyd’s funniest moments reveal his dithering heart, implying his failure to pursue Beatrice has more to do with his lack of self-confidence and fear than lack of interest in her.

Brimming with self-confidence is O’Donnell’s contrasting Beatrice, constantly bursting with witty put-downs and slights against her sparring partner. She’s full of energy and certainty, that occasionally borders on fishwifey, but there’s a nice brittleness to her that melds well with Boyd’s quieter Benedick, and gives the pairing fresh appeal. The comparative lovers Hero and Claudio are somewhat thankless parts, they provide the backbone of the story but both are rather insipid which makes it difficult for the actors to inject much animation into that relationship. While they may command less attention than the leads, you don’t hate them for their blandness and Lowri Izzard and Harry Lister Smith make a sweet pairing.

In an interesting take the role of Leonato is perfectly transposed into Leonata and played brilliantly by Caroline Langrishe, which adds a second gender dimension to the play, as a house entirely composed of women is ‘invaded’ by an army of men. Langrishe absolutely anchors the production as the dignified host, adding considerable gravitas to the otherwise fledgling cast. Equally interesting is Faction veteran Christopher Hughes as Don John a nicely malevolent presence casting a shadow over the otherwise sunny proceedings, but adding greater depth to this role of jealous brother than often seen, and with Jude Owusu’s engaging Don Pedro, you want these fractious siblings to be given more stage time.

There’s much to admire in this pared-down version of Much Ado About Nothing and its modern twist combined with an unusual setting should certainly attract new audiences in this Shakespeare anniversary year. The Faction has taken a fresh approach to a much worn classic and while many critics were unimpressed with some of the innovations on offer, this company’s lateral-thinking approach always makes their work an interesting experience. The use of video isn’t to all tastes and it may not work well but I can see why they chose it – it obviates the need for Simon Callow et al to turn up every night, slims down the subplots and implies a wider comment on the surveillance element of the plot.

Shakespeare in a shop is quite a strange idea, and while the avowed purpose of this short season is to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death with a number of events and displays across the department store, including quotes and merchandise in the famous windows, at heart of course, this is a cunning way to sell things and Selfridges has a themed clothing line as well as copious amounts of accessories, books and general gifts which it hopes to flog to you, while showcasing its stylish fashion credentials with the cast costumes. Yet in return, with several empty seats, the theatre could do more to drum up on-the-spot business from people browsing the cook-wear, because despite its all too frequent summer airing, The Faction is one of London’s leading young companies and their  take on Much Ado About Nothing is fresh and fun.

Shakespeare reFASHIONEDed: Much Ado About Nothing is at Selfridges until 24 September, with performances running Tuesday-Saturday. Tickets cost £20


Richard III – The Almeida

Ralph Fiennes as Richard III by Miles Aldridge

Richard III may well be the most frequently performed Shakespeare play of the last few years, seemingly spawning more productions than Hamlet. Given a new lease of life after the discovery of his body in a Leicester car park in 2012, we’ve seen the lead role played by Kevin Spacey at the Old Vic, Martin Freeman in a Jaime Lloyd version, a wonderful promenade production by Iris Theatre Company in St Paul’s church yard and Mark Rylance at the Globe. The Faction opened 2016 with its innovative version at The New Diorama starring Christopher York and a few weeks ago the BBC screened its version with Benedict Cumberbatch. Now at the Almeida, Ralph Fiennes assumes the role of Shakespeare’s most controversial villain.

Fiennes is having an incredible run of form on stage; he’s taken on three mammoth roles in major productions with a combined stage time of well over 11 hours. Starting with Man and Superman last year at the National, The Master Builder at the Old Vic in February – both shamefully overlooked by the award panels – and now Richard III for the Almeida; it’s an impressive commitment to theatre that in little more than a year has been incredible to watch. This performance feels like the end of a trilogy of works that have examined the ambiguous nature of power and its ability to release the inner strands of villainy and self-absorption disguised by a charming manner and degree of the subject’s star power. While Man and Superman’s John Tanner was the least dangerous, his vanity led naturally into Fiennes next role as Ibsen’s Halvard Solness the eponymous master builder who sacrifices everything for fame, and ultimately then to the dark and dangerous charisma of Richard III who covets greater status and will do anything to get it.

The Almeida’s production opens with the archaeological dig in that Leicester car park with forensic officers searching for remains in an open grave where they find the skull and curved spine of Richard. It’s a poignant opening that references both the ongoing contemporary interest in Richard’s story, and Shakespeare’s own version of it, as well as the burden of mortality which hangs heavy over this interpretation. Though mostly covered in a retractable glass platform, the grave is visible throughout reminding the audience that Richard will cause many deaths on his path to the throne – and reversing the soldier-ornaments concept from And Then There Were None, skulls appear on the back wall with each fatality – but also that for all his machinations this too will be Richard’s own fate. In an interesting directorial decision, at key moments the glass is retracted and characters move around the open grave and occasionally die into it implying perhaps that these decisions seal Richard’s own fate.

It’s a contemporary design using a palette of sombre black to reflect the constant mourning of the court, with touches of monarchical gold. Jon Morrell’s costumes and Hildegard Bechtler’s set offer a modern yet timeless element to the story, combining a minimalist simplicity with hints of cold stone palaces and Midlands battlefields. A swinging chain mail curtain separates the throne from the grave, a potent symbol of the role of war in the creation and destruction of medieval monarchy which reflects the play’s own concern with the grieving royal widows whose fortunes were decided in combat. More perhaps could be made of the military influence on this society in other areas of the design to really emphasise the years of brutality, suspicion and devastation that have afflicted Yorkist England.

Fiennes’s Richard III is a monstrous combination of magnetism and psychopathy that wins the audience’s interest early on. He begins by letting us in on his plans and as he wheedles his way towards the crown, his methods become increasingly dangerous and sadistic. But charm comes first and as we see in only the second scene language is his initial tool to convince the Lady Anne to marry him and then winning the various council members to his will. Later still we see his physical strength that despite his deformity, is sufficient to overpower and subdue Anne and Queen Elizabeth as well as prove a worthy opponent in battle.

The curved spine held up by the archaeologists at the start is mirrored in the prosthetic Fiennes wears which makes the ridges of the backbone occasionally visible through his costume. His right arm is clamped to his side, the left shoulder built up and one foot slightly turned in, but this is no panto representation and Fiennes absorbs Richard’s deformity into a fuller perspective of the character – Richard rarely draws attention to his differences and Fiennes subtly uses that to imply the powerful way in which Richard sees himself, as the same or better than other men. The intensity of performance is a joy to watch and each of his soliloquies are magnificent; he has a great feel for the verse and a stage presence that creates a very different energy and vitality when he’s there. Fiennes in full flight is really something to see, and as his Richard explodes with anger and recrimination, as well the more sensitive and troubled moments of conscience, it’s thrilling to immerse yourself in such a high calibre performance.

A number of other actors also stand out, particularly Finbar Lynch as Richard’s co-conspirator the Duke of Buckingham who helps to work the council and arranges a few deaths that propel Richard to the throne before bulking at the murder of the Princes. Scott Handy has a sensitive and moving role as the innocent Duke of Clarence, Richard’s brother and first victim that provides a stark contrast with our protagonist, while Aislin McGuckin is a fiery Queen Elizabeth who charts the descent from ultimate power to destruction really well. Her lengthy scene in the second part of the play with Fiennes in which he persuades her to let him marry her daughter is one of the best in the production, full of tension and bitterness that builds to what will be a controversial climax, although one which brings fresh perspective to this scene and will be a talking point on the way home.

With five shows under its belt, the Almeida’s production is still in preview so a lot can still change, and with three further performances before Thursday’s press night there are a few things the show could do to make even more of an impact. Shakespeare’s Wars of the Roses plays have a huge cast of characters to keep straight so it’s easy for an audience to be confused by the various Dukes and members of the clergy, and too often in the group scenes a lot of characters are dotted around the stage and seemingly not reacting to the speaker. You can see that Fiennes’s Richard is constantly thinking, whatever is being said the wheels are turning in his mind and his blood is boiling, and some of the other characters need to give more thought to how they feel about what’s being said and what it means for them. This would help to differentiate some of the secondary roles and give greater nuance to the shifting factions of the court.

Not much has been cut and with a first half coming in at 1 hour, 45 minutes, the show feels a little sluggish at first and there are a number of scenes in which various men sit around a table politicking so perhaps there’s scope to inject some dynamism in the staging. More thought too could be given to the role of the women to whom Shakespeare has given considerable focus but are not yet being used to make a forceful point either about the consequences of warfare in this period or as the only people able to see through Richard’s veneer of politeness. It’s a rare treat to see Vanessa Redgrave on stage (as Queen Margaret, the widow of Henry VI) and she delivers her lines beautifully but it’s not yet clear where the character is pitched – is she mad or do the others only think so? Likewise Joanna Vanderham’s Lady Anne has a single shouty pitch which isn’t capturing the pawn-like nature of the character or the lot of marryable highborn women to be treated like possessions. Phoebe Fox in the recent BBC version was a moving Lady Anne, while Kristin Scott Thomas in the McKellen film played her as a deadeyed drug addict detached from it all, so Vanderham needs to find an angle. Scott Thomas was actually in the audience and would be a good shout for the yet unannounced role as Cleopatra opposite Fiennes in the National’s forthcoming Anthony and Cleopatra.

Finally there are a couple of themes that are hinted at but never fully realised. Lord Hastings (an excellent James Garnon) is the only person with a mobile phone which he uses to impart news, but this device isn’t utilised (and could be) in other places. If the director, Rupert Goold, is making the point that only Hastings is engaged in this way then we need the other characters to respond to that, or having other people bored and texting may add to the big scenes which currently lack reaction. And while I like the car park opener there’s only a hinted return to that at the very end which feels a little incomplete as a comment on modern engagement, maybe we need to see the bones again or have some kind of re-interment to close the story.

Regardless of these small changes, this production of Richard III is fascinating, powerful and compelling. With a reawakened interest in this period of history, audiences are coming to this play with greater knowledge of the story and looking for an intelligent approach to one of Shakespeare’s darkest works. Fiennes is the life-blood of this production, creating a loathsome, terrifying and engaging villain who easily outmanoeuvres those around him and keeps the audience on the edge of their seat throughout. As an exploration in human morality Fiennes’s recent roles have taken us from a bachelor afraid of marriage to an emotionally damaged man avenging himself on the world, reminding us what a truly powerful performer he is.

Richard III is at The Almeida Theatre until 6 August. The show has some seats available from £10 but day seats are available from 11am at the box office or via lottery. There will also be the first live screening from The Almeida to cinemas on 21 July.  


Romeo and Juliet – Garrick Theatre

Romeo & Juliet - Branagh Theatre

Perfectly timed to open at the tail-end of the Shakespeare 400 celebrations, the penultimate production in Kenneth Branagh’s year of theatre is Romeo and Juliet – probably the greatest tragic romance of all time and arguable the most well-known of his plays. Even if you’ve never seen a Shakespeare play in your life, chances are you’ll know the plot of Romeo and Juliet, potentially a couple of quotes and the fact it has a balcony scene (which was never actually specified in the text). As much as scholars and theatre-lovers may argue that Hamlet, Henry V, Richard III or any other has had a greater impact on the nature of theatre and on the acting profession, Romeo and Juliet has become an intrinsic and recognisable part of the pop culture landscape

Appropriate then, that Branagh’s two leads are most famous for their TV roles – Richard Madden as Game of Thrones Robb Stark and Lily James as Downton Abbey’s Lady Rose – bringing with them a sizeable young fan base that will have some familiarity with at least the story of this play. Yet it is a very difficult play to do well, largely because our tolerance for highly romantic language and the arduous innocence of the young lovers is, these days, tinged with considerable cynicism. As world-weary adults we condemn their teenage crush and feel sure that had they lived they probably would’ve been sick of each other within 6 months. So, the modern audience poses a considerable problem for a director who has to navigate the original language with shifting attitudes to this lovelorn tale.

Many of the critics assumed that Branagh’s stumbling block would be the comedies, most especially The Painkiller which instead proved a triumphant hit, not least with audiences who loved it. Of all the plays in the season, however, it was Romeo and Juliet that I had most doubts about for the reasons above and the relatively untested power of the leads. Yet, Branagh has again proven his mettle as a director by creating an imaginative and compelling piece of theatre that somehow perfectly navigates the pitfalls of this play.

Set in sleek 1950s Italy, it opens in the middle of a stone piazza, with café tables and idle young men in shirt sleeves enjoying the heat. Immediately you think of West Side Story (itself a version of this play) and we get a sense of a world in which the young feel oppressed by the authority of the old, desperate to fight each other but not daring to. It bristles with masculine energy as the warring Montagues and Capulets circle each other trading insults. The palette is entirely black, white and grey, implying a realm of respectability and power invested in ageing men, but one that offers glamorous women and fancy parties. And Branagh, with co-director and choreographer Rob Ashford, have introduced a number of innovations including a nice dance piece at the Capulet’s ball and having three sung speeches, including Juliet taking to the microphone at the party and spotting Romeo for the first time. It’s subtly done but adds a nice touch of variety and modernity to the delivery.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect is how funny it is in the first half, and clearly drawing on his recent productions, Branagh has repurposed some of the more sentimental speechifying and given it a comedy edge, not least in the (in)famous balcony scene. Usually this is played as an earnest confession of love, but here the 14 year old Juliet is drunk from the party and Romeo is still playing the charming lothario, and only towards the end of the scene do they both begin to express sincere emotion for one another. It’s done with restraint so the comedy is never overt and brings fresh interpretation to one of the most famous of Shakespeare’s scenes which will appeal to more current attitudes. Instead of laughing at the high-language we’re being shown the humour in the gaucheness and embarrassment of the characters as they try to express their feelings for each other. It works.

The second half is quite a different beast and here the full danger of inter-family rivalry and the tangled plot in which the lovers find themselves is realised. The atmosphere is permanently charged with emotion – be it grief, anger or love – and the more leisurely pace quickly increases as things converge. It is a marked change of tone which finally allows the actors to intensify their performances and love no longer has a comedic role, instead it is now driving events and becomes completely compelling.

Richard Madden and Lily James have real chemistry as the ‘star-crossed’ pair, and their desire for one another is entirely believable throughout. They nicely navigate their way from love at first sight, through their first nervous exchanges to a physical passion for one another that ultimately consumes them. Madden’s Romeo is initially harder to get to grips with as he rushes some lines and seems to be charming Juliet without entirely devoting himself, but it’s soon clear that this almost rehearsed smoothness is intentional, and it is only mid-way through the balcony scene that you see him realise she is more than another conquest to him and that he begins to feel deeply. Madden grows in the role as events play out and later he equates the violence of Romeo’s love with the more brutal side of his manliness which results in a number of deaths – so as his feelings for Juliet become more firmly established so to do his violent tendencies. Much later in the play as he discovers Juliet’s fate, Madden is excellent at conveying his devastation, making his final scenes quite moving and he will find greater depths of emotion as he gets more performances under his belt.

Lily James is also a great Juliet, capturing the girlish innocence of the 14 year old – an interesting decision to retain that element of the play – experiencing her first feelings of love, lust and rebellion. Of the two it’s the harder role to convince in because Juliet is all emotion so in the wrong hands can seem unvarying and mawkish. Unlike Romeo she has no other developed subplots and speaks almost entirely of love and marriage throughout the play (whether about Romeo or Paris), so in James’s performance it’s fascinating to see greater variety particularly adding texture to the changing relationship with her parents and a steeliness in her final act. And although the balcony scene emphasises the comedy it’s clear throughout that James has a feel for the verse which make Juliet’s declarations of love entirely convincing and heartfelt.

There has been much conjecture about Derek Jacobi’s casting as much older Mercutio than usual but in the context of this production it seems to work well, evidence of another Branagh / Ashford innovation in the way the text has been interpreted. Jacobi gives us a rather camp and effeminate Mercutio, who loves parties and makes a grand first entrance with a silky sway to the music at the Capulet’s ball. We see him then as a peacemaker, far removed from the family turf war and a bit of an old roué. And while it does make his final scene with Tybalt a little ridiculous – how on earth he thought he was going to beat a 20-something in a sword fight – it makes him the first innocent destroyed by the feud. Jacobi is part of the comic charm of the first act that makes his demise all the more shocking and a clear catalyst for the more serious business to come.

There’s a good supporting cast including Myra Syal extracting as much comedy as she can from the role of the Nurse, while Michael Rouse has a standout scene as Lord Capulet tearing into his undutiful daughter and emphasising the dangerous power of these senior men that can easily erupt into violence when crossed. A shame then that the war between the two families feels a little anaemic – and having Mercutio in a comedy role does take away from Romeo’s gang of young thugs –  so you don’t get that feeling of danger all the time or that peace is teetering on a knife’s edge. We see that potential in Rouse’s explosive scene but a little more of that early on would help to heighten the tension and make it clear what’s at stake.

Credit also to James, Syal and Marisa Berenson (playing Lady Capulet) for not allowing an audience member’s inexplicable screaming fit to derail their final scene. She was escorted out in less than 15 seconds and the actors resumed unphased. Overall then, Romeo and Juliet is a fine addition to the Branagh series and should garner positive reviews in a couple of days (the disadvantage of buying tickets a year ahead is never knowing when press night will be). It feels contemporary, has taken innovative approaches to some of the tricky aspects of performing this romantic tragedy and delivers a range of interesting performances, not least from its two star leads who will find more meaning as the run extends. And if the tragic ending (beautifully played incidentally) is not sad enough, this is the last Shakespeare of the inaugural season of the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company and it means we only have one production left. With four wonderful shows under its belt, hopes are high for The Entertainer in August.

Romeo and Juliet is at the Garrick Theatre until 13 August. Tickets start at £15 for the daily front-row lottery and the show will be broadcast to cinemas on 7 July. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


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