Tag Archives: Shakespeare

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


Romeo & Juliet – National Theatre

Romeo & Juliet - National Theatre (by Rob Youngson)

Almost exactly a year ago the National Theatre unknowingly instigated a significant change in the way that we create and consume theatre when it made its 2011 production of One Man Two Guvnors freely available online for a few days. That day home digital theatre as we now know it was born and 16-weeks of archive showings followed, joined first by venues all over the country sharing pre-recorded material and before long the development and live streaming of brand new content. 12 months later hundreds of shows have been produced, some through established venues, others created by small companies seizing the opportunity to share their performances using video calling platforms and streaming channels, some live, some pre-recorded and made available on demand. In some ways theatre will never be the same.

The National Theatre has lead this kind of innovation before when it created its National Theatre Live service to record and distribute productions to cinemas. And in the last year, this new online community of supporters was officially recognised with the launch of its on-demand streaming service – National Theatre at Home – the natural culmination of this international interest in watching past productions. The National also advanced the creation and sharing of new commissions when lockdown regulations preemptively ended its runs of Death of England: Delroy and the second pantomime in its history Dick Whittington, both of which were streamed for free.

Now the National looks again to the future with a hybrid production of Romeo & Juliet conceived and filmed during November’s lockdown and broadcast in the UK on Sky Arts with a PBS American premiere to follow later in the month. Based on a production originally announced for last summer that was derailed by the pandemic, this hybrid film directed by Simon Godwin (Antony and Cleopatra) retains the services of intended stars Jessie Buckley and Josh O’Connor and in using the large Lyttleton Theatre, follows in the footsteps of Ian Rickson’s Uncle Vanya for the BBC and even more pertinently Curve Leicester’s Sunset Boulevard in Concert in acknowledging the theatre space that contains it.

What makes this beautiful 90-minute film especially interesting for theatre is its collaborative process of creation in which actors, director, creative team and crucially, the cinematographer worked together throughout the rehearsal and filming period to develop a vision for a piece that manages to be inherently theatrical and a successful movie experience. This combination of quite different technical skills and requirements is a potentially exciting byproduct of filmed theatre where different kinds of creative input and the development of transferable skills can shift perspectives on how a show can use different narrative and visual techniques to tell a story.

Adapted by Emily Burns for the screen, this production manages to successfully combine both strands of Romeo & Juliet, creating a love story that is believable despite its slight premise and a context of simmering violence in which the two families openly contend and it is rare to see both so well conceived in the same production. In fact, what sets the National’s new version apart is just how inextricably linked they are, moving beyond a surface reading of the text in which the lovers are separated by family enmity, to demonstrate throughout that the emotional extremes that project the ferocity of Romeo and Juliet’s love and the burning hate between Capulet and Montague are equivalent and unruled passions with only one deadly outcome.

This darkness imbues the 95-minute film from its earliest moments as a cast of players gather in a National Theatre rehearsal room to perform this story for themselves alone. As Lucian Msamati’s Friar begins the play’s famous prologue, scenes from the inevitable future flash across the screen, anticipating what is to come but also giving this production a driving predestination. It is a technique the film uses in several crucial moments as both Romeo and Juliet foresee momentary snatches of their future echoing back to them as physical actions in the present such as Juliet lamenting Romeo’s departure, laying across the bed with an arm outstretched just as she will a few hours ahead when taking her fateful sleeping draft.

In slimming this lengthy play to a curt running time, Burns has had to jettison vast amounts of text particularly from the secondary characters and instead hones in on the initiation and development of what is here an intense love story, though even the soliloquies are reduced largely to the essential narrative requirements and well-known lines. But it has been skillfully done and Burns never loses the psychological purpose of the characters or the complexity of their interactions with their families or the social, religious and political structures of the city.

That this version of Verona is a savage place is abundantly clear, and while the editing choices mean that Mercutio and Tybalt in particular are dispatched far too soon and with so little time to give further substance to their individual personalities, Burns’s approach shuts down all avenues of escape or hope for the lovers unable to turn to their cold families or flick-knife wielding friends for assistance. Even the comedy of the Nurse is mostly put aside in order to imprison the leads and drive them to destruction.

As a first time film director with extensive understanding of staging and eliciting the emotional complexity of Shakespeare’s characters, Godwin has achieved something remarkable in this movie by marrying his understanding of stage intimacy with the much smaller scale projection that a camera demands. Some of our most creative directors regularly and very successfully move between theatre and film, and the influence of both forms of art can be seen in the complexity of the work they produce. Comparing Sam Mendes work on The Ferryman or The Lehman Trilogy and 1917 it is possible to see how they influence each other, a feeling of orchestration where Mendes is able to control the grand narrative while still drawing-out the intricacy of the human stories within it. Danny Boyle has a similar vision in his stage and film work, and comparing Frankenstein with Steve Jobs there is an intuitive understanding of visual design and the impact of theatrical spaces that is enhanced by a considered technical understanding of lighting, perspective and narrative devices.

Godwin has developed a similar eye and uses the theatre space here in quite an unusual way to create the scale of theatre with the proximity of bodies engaged in acts of affection, love and destruction. The conceit in this Romeo & Juliet is that the rehearsal room and its plain-clothed actors becomes the colourful world of Verona although Godwin holds back in marking this change until the party scene at the Capulets where the lovers first encounter one another. And while the actors have transitioned fully into their characters only to return briefly in the film’s closing scene, the stage area still quite deliberate forms the boundaries of their existence as Shakespeare implies in several plays – the opening Chrous of Henry V being the most famous.

Filmed in the Lyttelton Theatre, you will be hard pressed to recognise much of it, the playing space demarcated by iron doors that are the limits of Verona from which the costumed Romeo is eventually exiled into an adjoining but empty ante-room where he has no means of escape. That crucial scenes take place amidst the scenery struts in a thin corridor and on metal gantries cleverly imply how tangential the business of the family rivalry becomes to the lovers whose own scenes are fully staged in realised rooms – they are each other’s reality and while Romeo in particular traverses these other spaces, it is in these other more tangible locations that sadly for his friends his priorities, mind and purpose belong.

When Godwin shows the lovers together it is with close-ups so tight the viewer is almost within their embraces, the fierceness of their passion – as with his Antony and Cleopatra – unbounded by reason or parental order. But in what can often be a relationship that is hard to invest in, the proximity of Godwin’s lens gives these scenes a different level of intensity, an all or nothing consuming purpose that makes the brief time they have known one another seem irrelevant. Their relationship is desperate, urgent and ungovernable but surrounded by danger that is reflected in Godwin’s shot choices that build on his own experience as a theatre director.

Visually, this version of Romeo & Juliet is incredibly stylish but design is used in ways that enhances the story – a Soutra Gilmour trademark – using particular colours and tonal palettes. Romeo is always dressed in a pale hues with white, beige and brown that reflect the softer, dreamier nature of his personality while Juliet is given shades of emerald green primarily that set her against the magical masked ball and later the simpler tones of the other characters. The production is beautifully lit in a way that only stage lighting can ever achieve, contrasting the warmth and moonlit romance of the brief courtship with the stark daylight that intrudes so cruelly as the machinations of their families comes between them.

Jessie Buckley is a remarkable Juliet, not the childlike and romantic interpretation we often see but an intense and almost crazed interpretation that has a genuine maturity of feeling. This Juliet understands what is at stake in every moment of the play and Romeo’s appearance taps into a deep-rooted need within her that she is unable to control. There are hints that the coldness of her mother and flustering nurse have left Juliet craving a true affinity but Buckley finds levels of anxiety, fear and almost fanaticism in Juliet’s connection to Romeo, her mind spinning with worry that he won’t arrange their marriage and later almost clawing at herself as she becomes hemmed in by the proposed match with Paris. Buckley’s Juliet seems always on the edge of despair, not exactly fragile but driven by a gnawing mania that takes her towards destruction like Cathy in Wuthering Heights. There is clearly a Lady Macbeth at some point in her future.

Josh O’Connor’s Romeo is less soulfully troubled but is equally thwarted by the interventions of fate. His own family connection is downplayed here so instead Romeo is struggling to balance the aggressive manly posturing expected of him and the softer feelings he has first for Rosaline and then for Juliet. O’Connor is particular good at these tender-hearted moments as the brooding Romeo of the opening scene evolves into the intoxicated lover, speaking the verse with real feeling that brings a credibility to their love-at-first-sight relationship. We see O’Connor’s Romeo act impulsively in his love for Juliet and in defence of his friend, both of which remain entirely consistent with his gentler nature, while the consequences of his rashness are convincingly depicted when his marriage to Juliet becomes his last refuge and hope.

Although the supporting cast have relatively less screen time this cast of National Theatre regulars amply flesh-out Veronese society. Msamati has incredible gravitas as the slightly sinister Friar Laurence who defies protocol by aiding the lovers while concocting all manner of alarming potions in his cell, but there is just enough affection for the couple in Msamati’s performance that makes his support convincing while amplifying the conspiratorial nature of the play that also puts him at risk if discovered. Tamsin Greig is brilliant as a calculating Lady Capulet whose softly spoken steel is enough to hold Tybalt (David Judge) back from murdering Romeo at the party and drips sufficient poison in her daughter’s ear to force her hand. We see too little of Deborah Findlay’s nurse, Adrian Lester’s furiously exasperated Prince and Fisayo Akinade’s Mercutio but each adds much to the texture of the overall production despite their limited screentime.

With Director of Photography Tim Sidell and Composer Michael Bruce in the rehearsal room, this hybrid theatre and film production has been a fascinating experiment resulting in a smart, interesting and entirely collaborative piece of art. The influence of digital theatre productions will be long, felt not only in the continuation of streaming in some form and the creation of blended movies like this one, but the techniques and approaches developed together. That’s not to say that all theatre productions will overtly incorporate filmic devices but through such open collaboration as the National has demonstrated here, directors, actors, designers and cinematographers learn from one another. From these perspectives new methods of storytelling are being born and it will be fascinating to see where it takes us.

Romeo & Juliet was created by the National Theatre and screened on Sky Arts on 4th April with a PBS screening the USA on 23 April. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


Coriolanus and the Hero-Warrior – National Theatre at Home

Tom Hiddleston in Coriolanus (by Johan Persson)

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

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

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

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

Characteristics of the Hero-Warrior

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

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

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

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

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

The Military-Political Clash

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

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

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

A Hard-Edged Vulnerability

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

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

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

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

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

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


Macbeth – Chichester Festival Theatre

 

Macbeth - Chichester Festival Theatre (by Manuel Harlan)

“Blood will have blood,” Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s most atmospheric plays, charting the murderous tyranny of the Scottish warrior king who kills his predecessor for the crown and then seeks to secure his throne with further crimes. But in what is a relatively simple premise, productions often fail to fully reconcile the play’s competing drivers, the psychological complexity of the central character, the supernatural hand of fate that uses prophecy and magic to create an overarching inevitability, and the warlike state in which the uncontainable ambitions of men are given bloody reign. What productions of Macbeth fail to decide is just who or what is in control.

It has been a long time since a truly satisfactory Macbeth appeared in the West End while beyond at the capital’s fringe venues again and again the power of Shakespeare’s text is weakened by poor decision-making and an assumption that the story is far easier to stage than it really is – get it right and the play is a glorious howl of pain that will dazzle and electrify an audience with a complex world of violence and retribution they will never forget, get it wrong and the whole thing clangs like a discordant bell, as the National Theatre discovered with last year’s disastrous version starring Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff set in an inexplicable post-apocalyptic world of bin bag trees and concrete where only hierarchy had survived.

But suddenly the tide may be turning and good Macbeths are like buses, none for ages and then two come along at once. In late August, Antic Disposition brought their fantastic traverse production to Temple Church which smartly integrated the witches into the nineteenth-century household of the Macbeths as servants and messengers permanently shaping and controlling the action as Harry Anton’s wonderful Thane of Glamis crumbled under the weight of his murderous burden. And now, in Chichester, John Simm’s Macbeth directed by Paul Miller offers a more deterministic approach to the character that pulls away from the brute strength of the seasoned warrior to offer a cerebral and often sardonic take on Macbeth’s responsibility for his own actions while developing a partnership of malevolent and ambitious equals with co-star Dervla Kirwan as Lady Macbeth.

Staged in the hexagonal Chichester Festival Theatre, the action takes place on a glass stage raised above a permanently exposed circle of rocky landscape. Designed by Simon Daw, the set is at once the blasted heath upon which Macbeth first learns of his destiny from the Weird Sisters, remaining visible throughout as a reminder of the point at which his life was irreversibly set upon this path, and it also represents the rugged landscape of Scotland above and for which the characters endlessly contend, the audience reminded of the bigger prize at stake. But there are other interpretations for Daw’s choices; the scarred earth devoid of grass could also suggest the permanent battlefield, a state of national warfare against the invading Norwegian army that becomes a civil war for the crown of Scotland – the battlefield also being the place in which Macbeth forged his character and earned his first plaudits from King Duncan, ones that inspire his ruthless quest for greater advancement.

This earthy pit also becomes a burial ground for several characters, if not all consistently, the glass stage parting to receive the bodies of Macduff’s son (a little awkwardly) and of Banquo, a nod to the shadow of inevitable death that hangs over the play, as well as the pile of bodies that Macbeth’s conscience accrues from the soldiers who die in the opening battle to the final murders that announce the play’s end game. But there is one more possibility that presents itself and Daw’s covered pit may also represent the way in which we fetishize and misuse history to suit our current political and social purpose.

Historians have long debated the practice of placing everyday objects from the past behind glass screens in museums, investing them with a reverence they never held during their period of use. Thus, the glass platform above the landscape may imply the ways in which Macbeth actively misapplies his own history and experience as a successful military leader to facilitate his role as King and dictator. There are strong notions of power and it corrupting influence which run throughout the production, showcasing how a lack of legitimacy needs to be circumvented, so the preservation of the blasted health / battlefield / earth of Scotland behind this glass screen speaks to Macbeth’s own misguided preservation of purpose that determines his behaviour and shores-up his despotic regime.

There is, for the most part, a fascinating intensity to Miller’s production, moodily lit by Mark Doubleday to create an eerie and intimidating world of dark deeds. The first half runs up until the death of Banquo and has a real momentum as events accelerate quickly to place Macbeth on the throne with plots and conversations taking place in shadowy corners and half-lit portions of the stage that well exude the gloomy oppression of the Macbeths’ castle. Particularly striking is the scene immediately after Duncan’s murder in which the blood-soaked figures of Macbeth and his wife are thrown into elemental relief by two well-position spotlights that cross the stage, simultaneously bathing them in light and darkness like other worldly beings. Just before the interval, Miller and the creative team create the feeling that everything is now in place, and Macbeth’s ascendancy is guaranteed.

If the second half of this production doesn’t quite fulfill the promise of the first it is by no means a reflection on the interpretation of the central characters whose interaction and stage presence is gripping throughout. For part two it is really a question of tone and two crucial decisions that interrupt the flow of the action. First, arguably, the interval comes at the wrong point and while the second half opens with a strong version of the Banquet scene, a longer piece of contextual exposition between two interchangeable soldiers drains the tension and could have been cut to make way for the fiery witches cauldron that follows. Bathed in red light and using Tim Reid’s psycho-horror video design (that looks better in the photos than it does on stage) this would have been a stronger opener, as well as a chance to mirror the focus on the witches at the start of Act One.

The second fateful decision is to play the tediously long scene between Malcolm and Macduff in full which switches the focus from the more engaging intrigues of Macbeth’s psychological decline to a sunny day somewhere else. Running for more than 10-minutes but feeling longer and weakly performed, it is a scene that adds very little to the play except for textural purists. Partly it is too focused on a character no one cares much about regardless of the production, but also creates an unnecessary “light” break in the carefully constructed tension of the preceding hours. Miller has worked hard, has earned our undivided attention and this scene pulls us out of the much more interesting perspective of Macbeth while we wait for key information to be delivered to Macduff. The airy birdsong and spring-like feel are a confusing distraction in a show that has otherwise focused on the ambition of one man and the horror his action perpetuates. Both these choices temporarily derail the action in what could have been a slightly tighter production.

Nonetheless, John Simm has seized the opportunity to make the character his own, using his own ability to play dark humour to bring a different angle to the performance. His Macbeth makes perfect psychological sense – a rare achievement in a difficult character to pitch – ensuring that his relationship with Duncan is less ingratiating than often seen and frustrated by his decision to make Malcolm his heir. Just as Christopher Ravenscroft’s softly spoken Duncan starts to announce his decision, Simm subtly shifts his weight as though about to step forward to claim his rightful place, only to be stunned to hear a lesser rival’s name. It is this outrageous dismissal that goads his Macbeth to consider murder, an arrogant certainty that carries him through the rest of the play.

Simm may not be a brutal thug who could tear a man to pieces, but his Macbeth is a dangerous figure – an understanding of quiet menace that Simm brings from his Pinter successes – so certain of his destiny, of a right to rule and his invincibility that after he is crowned his personality awkwardly changes towards old friend Banquo, a paranoid suspicion creeping into the performance that sours their affection for one another. Equally, Simm’s Macbeth refuses help from his co-conspirator, ejecting his wife to make gruesome decisions without further consultation. There is no question that this Macbeth knows his own mind and follows it relentlessly, full of his own agency that leaves him notably alone as the rebels surround the castle, a deluded, isolated figure on an empty stage clinging calmly to his certainty that he will prevail.

And Simm brings real clarity to Shakespeare’s verse, not only delivering the lines with a feel for everyday conversation but with a true understanding of every image and classical allusion. The soliloquies are delivered with confidence and while this is not a Macbeth whose mind is wrenched to pieces by his crime, Simm uses them like Hamlet to explore the conflicting emotions that chart Macbeth’s fluctuating journey through his own ability to order and control his thoughts, bringing small touches of gallows humour to draw out different dimensions in the role.

Dervla Kirwan as Lady Macbeth is every bit as good, developing an early partnership with Simm that suggests a marriage of true equality in the early part of the play as they both embark on their joint endeavour. Kirwan is a tower of strength to her husband, helping him to overcome his doubts when his resolve crumbles, confident that the opportunity is perfectly within their grasp if they stick to her plan. She’s not an evil Lady Macbeth but a very smart one, speaking in hushed tones as she urges her husband to the action she knows is right, while later assuming the magisterial dignity her husband lacks when she struggles to shield her guests from the effect of Macbeth’s visions.

Kirwan’s performance is the rock around which the rest of the production is anchored, stately and calm, the character’s determination which Kirwan evokes creates this balance in Lady Macbeth’s marriage that lasts until the point of Duncan’s death, making her husband’s decision to cast her aside so shocking. The sense of complete partnership between them broken by his decisive isolation, and as Shakespeare takes great leaps with the character off stage, Kirwan conveys Lady Macbeth’s own descent into madness with sympathy and credibility.

Among the surrounding cast, Stuart Laing’s Banquo impresses as Macbeth’s warrior comrade, divided by the witches prophesy that generates jealousy and fear between old friends, while Michael Balogun as Macduff conveys his own fury well, although the final confrontation between the antagonists is strangely short and underwhelming. Some of the secondary characters however are less clear, often more a distraction from the central storyline than helping to stoke the unfolding drama.

Is there a West End transfer in here -potentially. This two hour and 50-minute production does need a trim and the tone has to refocus more consistently on the driving intensity of Macbeth’s jagged purpose, but Dew’s multi-interpretative set-design has much to say about the various underlying themes of the play and has true purpose in the context of the action. It has been a long time since the West End saw a truly great Macbeth so perhaps this is a chance for Simm and Kirwan to buck the trend with impressive performances that offer a different perspective on their characters while creating a potency in their exchanges that is never less than compelling.

Macbeth is at the Chichester Festival Theatre until 26 October with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog   


Were We Entertained? Reviewing a Year of Branagh Theatre

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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.


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