Tag Archives: Shakespeare

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

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.


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.  


Shakespeare in Ten Acts – British Library

Shakespeare in Ten Acts - British Library

You may have noticed that it’s 400 years since Shakespeare died and over the last few weeks there has been a festival of activities across the country and on television, from the Globe’s lovely but technically challenged Complete Walk showing scenes from every play with some of our finest actors, to the somewhat less successful RSC Shakespeare Live variety show beamed from Stratford to your living rooms and cinemas. With a new series of The Hollow Crown in mid-flow as well, interest in Shakespeare and how his work is performed is riding high. The British Library’s new exhibition Shakespeare in Ten Acts looks at the history of the plays and the ways in which they’ve been performed in the last four centuries, considering how changing theatrical fashions and political contexts have shaped the staging of Shakespeare’s of major works.

This exhibition purports to tell the story of Shakespeare in performance, focusing on ten key moments from the first Hamlet in around 1600 to the opening of Shakespeare’s Globe in the early twenty-first century. But it doesn’t do this in quite the way you expect and often becomes side-tracked by the wider context of the landmark eras it chooses. While these digressions are often interesting and supported by a wealth of valuable original material largely from the Library’s own collection, it makes for a less focused tour of Shakespearean performances than anticipated. Largely it seems this is driven by the material the BL could obtain rather than the argument the curators are trying to make that Shakespeare ‘holds up a mirror to the era in which it was performed’.

Understandably, this is a very bookish exhibition and you can expect to see a number of important tomes, not least a speech for a play about Thomas Moore in Shakespeare’s own hand which was recently read by Sir Ian McKellen for Shakespeare Live and at a BFI talk about Shakespeare on Screen. Here too is the important first folio as well as personal items like Shakespeare’s mortgage deed with accompanying seals. The exhibition then opens with the first Hamlet which we learn was written with specific actors in mind, most particularly for Richard Burbage who was the first to play what is arguably the most sought after role in all the plays.  It has since come to represent a high watermark in a young actor’s career, a significant hurdle for those wishing to be known as a great classical performer.

This section on Hamlet is one of the best, digitally comparing the differences between the versions of the ‘To be or not to be’ speech and giving wider context about the establishment and workings of Shakespeare’s theatre. The notion that he was specifically writing for individuals among the Lord Chamberlaine’s Men is a valuable one and brings the process of creation, performance and redrafting to life in a way that’s sometimes missing from the rest of the exhibition. The section on the first black actor to play Othello also feels particularly well thought through with portraits of Ira Aldridge from the 1820s alongside playbills advertising his performances. Although some of these were criticised Aldridge had a long career on the stage and in the course of more than 40 years played several roles, including somewhat surprisingly using white make-up to play other leading parts including Richard III and The Merchant of Venice. The BL then diversifies this section to include photos of Laurence Olivier playing Othello and modern black actors in performance including David Oyelowo in tribute to the modern practice of colour-blind casting.

Some elements of this exhibition feel like padding rather than integral to the argument and occasionally they try to cover too much material. One milestone was the first female performance in 1660 when an unknown actress was allowed to take to the stage as Desdemona, which prompts a brief history of people playing Shakespeare’s heroines since, including Vivien Leigh’s costume for Lady Macbeth and details of Ned Kynaston who had a career playing a woman onstage, but what it doesn’t do so well is focus on the mechanics of that original performance, or any of the ones it later shows. Time and again in this exhibition the focus seems to be on examining a play as a piece of English Literature rather than as a drama performance, so what you really want here is more focus on that original flood of actresses onto the stage and the practicalities of putting on a play in Restoration England. Even more important, given the overall purpose of this exhibition, is how it changed perceptions of Shakespeare’s work and what role women had to play in perpetuating it.

Some of the weaker sections don’t always feel like landmark moments as the BL implies, and while there is interesting material in the ‘Wider World’ section as Shakespeare’s plays are performed abroad for the first time, not least onboard an East India Company ship off Sierra Leon – an early incarnation of the theatre ships of the First World War navy – this section is an odd assortment of stuff including a Shakespeare in Love poster and some international editions of Shakespeare plays. Similarly the sections on a forged play doing the rounds in 1796 and the reintroduction of the tragic ending to King Lear in 1838 feel more like footnotes than major turning points in our understanding of Shakespeare’s popularity. Nice stories perhaps but not worthy of entire sections devoted to them, or if they are, the BL is not making a convincing case.

It’s not until you get into the twentieth century that we get a greater focus on physical performance with Peter Brook’s influential 1970s version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with a whole room made up to look like the white box that Brook used as his stage, and featuring props and costumes – if only more of it were like this. Also interesting is the section on Twelfth Night and Mark Rylance’s all male production at the Globe in 2002 which leaps right back to the way Shakespeare was originally performed, supported here by costumes and scenes from the production. The Globe appears a few times in this exhibition actually, suggesting a partnership that prevents mention of any other modern purveyors of Shakespeare plays – the RSC and National Theatre for example remain entirely unmentioned, though arguably the formation of the RSC is a landmark in itself.

It concludes, rather oddly, with emphasis on film and digital media using a production of Hamlet by The Wooster Group in 2013 – something I confess I’d not heard of – which though innovative seems to end this show with a whimper. There are scenes from twentieth-century films including early silent movies, right through to Branagh’s 1996 Henry V and Justin Kurzel’s 2015 Macbeth. Seems a shame not to have had the final section consider the modernisation of Shakespeare on film, its limitations and scope for interpretation as a way to bring new audiences and new actors to the fore – especially as there are box office riots as people clamour for tickets to see a favourite celebrity actor take on a major role such as Cumberbatch’s Hamlet or Tennant’s Richard II, meaning the NT Live business model has expanded beyond the National Theatre linking up with competitors to broadcast any major performance far and wide. Again, I suspect this a lack of material but this an important marker for the future of Shakespeare in performance and one that would have provided a fitting end to this exhibition.

Shakespeare in Ten Acts has a lot of interesting material but the central argument and focus is not always clear enough. As a chance to see a number of important documents and to learn a bit more about the documentary history of selected performances this is fine, but you don’t leave feeling as though you have an entirely new slant on Shakespeare’s plays or enthused by the endless interpretation of his works – which you really should. It’s academic, broad in topic and respects the poetry of Shakespeare’s words, but in his BFI talk recently Sir Ian McKellen argued that to get a new audience enthused about Shakespeare they need to see it, so what this really needs is more performance.

Shakespeare in Ten Acts is at the British Library until 6 September. Tickets are £12 for adults (without Gift Aid) and concessions are available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


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