Tag Archives: William Shakespeare

Othello – National Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Winter’s Tale – RSC / BBC4

The Winters Tale - RSC (by Topher McGrillis)

Of the many productions cancelled as a result of the pandemic, several have found a new life in another form largely through dedicated online streaming platforms that had a modest take-up before theatre closures but have allowed creatives, directors and producers to share their work with a wider audience in the hope of staging it in the future. But two of the most significant contributors to the saving of ‘lost’ plays are not dedicated arts spaces – Zoom a video calling platform originally designed for quite a different purpose and the BBC. Reithian values and mission aside, television and theatre have been largely estranged for a long time, but during each lockdown a plethora of archived content supplied by arts organisations was given wider prominence before newly commissioned pieces were funded, filmed and shared via the BBC iPlayer, radio channels and (the now under threat) BBC4.

An important outlet then for theatre, opera and dance in the last year, the BBC Lights Up Festival and Culture in Quarantine initiatives have been a treasure trove of lost works – from Ian Rickson’s rich and moving Uncle Vanya filmed at the Harold Pinter to radio productions of Rockets and Blue Lights, The Meaning of Zong and Shoe Lady, the BBC has thrown a much needed lifeline to staged and developing works. One of the most fruitful relationships has been with the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) who shared a host of pre-recorded plays for free last summer and now join forces with BBC4 for the world premiere of A Winter’s Tale, a production intended for the 2020 stage and all but lost to theatre history.

Now available on the iPlayer following its evening screening, this version was filmed on the Stratford stage almost as it would have been presented to an audience and has been newly repurposed for television, following in the footsteps of the National Theatre’s equally ‘lost’ Romeo and Juliet that became a Sky Arts film earlier this month, finding itself anew in the cinematic format. The Winter’s Tale is a play that easily bears the change of medium, often finding resonance in other forms, not least a stunning ballet production choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon in 2014 which the Royal Opera House streamed last year under its Our House to Your House season of works. Eschewing Shakespeare’s text entirely, it nonetheless boasted a poignant and psychologically complex performance from Principal Edward Watson, arguably one of the finest Leontes in any form.

And The Winter’s Tale is a play that can be transposed to many eras, it’s eternal themes of love, loss, jealousy and redemption tinged with a touch of magic feel well situated in the RSC’s production which enhances its atmosphere of uncertainty by locating the action in the suspicious Cold War era where the nature of alliance and allegiance was sorely tested. Framed against the years 1953 to 1969 (the Coronation of Elizabeth II to the Moon Landing) this is a rich period where the long shadow of the Second World War, of rationing, economic depression and rebuilding collided with a social optimism for change and progress, tearing down some of the rigid social structures and expectations and replacing them with greater choice – or so it seemed on the surface at least.

But underneath this narrative, the consequences of political rancor and betrayal earlier in the century came to fruition which, as A Splinter of Ice so well explores, resulted in the uncovering of a major Russian spy ring with the escape of Burgess and Maclean that led to the hunt for the Third Man whose own defection falls within the period in which the RSC have set their production. That Director Erica Whyman’s story begins against this backdrop of confusion, the world being upended and recent history being rewritten adds much to the climate of distrust in King Leontes’s court although more of this could be more strongly conveyed. Expanding the scope of the play from personal jealousy to a much broader and state-influenced concern about trust and deception in a period where nations like the UK began to question its position and influence on the world stage as the Empire faded away is a valuable starting point. And to conclude at a point where jetting into space felt like a piece of magic, in theory, fits well with the play’s charming conclusion where Queen Hermione fulfills the Pygmalion myth.

The two halves of this story taking place 16 years apart represent those differences as designer Tom Piper creates the elegant but austere court of Sicilia and the concentration-camp-like trial where Queen Hermione’s purity is debated. Combined with Isobel Waller-Bridge’s creeping music, the design is full of the dark shadow of suspicion that hangs over the first 90-minutes of Shakespeare’s text, although there were perhaps even greater opportunities to enhance the watchfulness and duplicity that Leontes expresses with more overt attempts to overhear the conversations between his wife and friend or to have them followed.

But building on the theme, Madeline Gerling’s costume design evolves from 50s cocktail party to authoritarian state quite swiftly as the increasingly enraged Leontes appears in unadorned military garb to demand the death of his Queen despite the guidance issued by the Oracle. Part Two is another world entirely as the audience depart for Polixenes’s Bohemia, a pastoral 60s vision of loose-fit hippie floral dresses and communal easy living which contrasts the formality of its neighbouring land.

Whyman manages the production with the same distinction, running the Sicilian section as a single theatrical piece filmed as-live with scene changes happening within the show as they would in the theatre, rather than use cuts as a movie would. The same occurs in the second half of the play, allowing the Bohemian sequence in Act 4 to transform back into Leontes’s kingdom in Act 5 using stage technology rather than film which gives the actors long periods of performance to build their roles as theatre rather than movie performances which, on the whole, is beneficial to the flow.

Variation is created with a news reel section that foregrounds Hermione’s wonderful declaration of innocence, and with some home movie inserts into the pastoral festival that use a 60s filming style to create era authenticity. But again, the opportunity to directly link to the changing political context of the 1960s and even reference the moon landing described in the production’s publicity never fully transpire and the show starts to drift away from what should be a strong and remarkably relevant period setting for the unfolding drama.

As a hybrid production, none of this is anything like as daring as the National’s Romeo and Juliet nor does it use the playing space as liberally or imaginatively. Yet as a more traditional approach to filming a stage production – of which reflecting its stage origins remains its primary purpose – Whyman’s choices are faithful to the themes and shape of Shakespeare’s play – sometimes that is to its detriment and the problematic fourth Act filled with tangential (and slightly tiresome) comedy performances drags on and on, weighing heavy on the running time.

At two hours and forty-five minutes the show fails to find consistency across the entire piece and while the drama of Leontes’s marriage races by in an hour and a half, the remainder struggles to retain the same tension and investment. A tighter and, in places, a less reverential approach would have added greater pace and jeopardy to proceedings, acknowledging that the demands of story-telling on film require a greater brevity and purpose than a straightforward translation from the stage often allows.

Yet in a play that, to modern eyes at least, rests on the injustices heaped on its women who are suspected, disbelieved, maltreated and exiled without evidence, the central female performances are especially strong. Kemi-Bo Jacobs is superb as Hermione, stately and regal throughout, Jacobs conveys real authority and sincerity in every speech, passionately advocating for her life during her trial in one of this production’s finest moments. Jacobs brings a poise and grace to the role, giving the dialogue such a natural expression that the audience can feel nothing but sympathy for her plight even refusing to believe Leontes deserves any kind of forgiveness or redemption from her at all.

Amanda Hadingue’s Paulina is equally impressive, authoritative and direct with her monarch, unafraid to plead her friend’s cause and show the King his errors in judgement. Persistence and enduring devotion are Paulina’s greatest qualities, and Hadingue portrays a woman who quietly and containedly endures her own grief while proving a commanding presence on stage, allowing her disapproval and rage to show only briefly while working to restore harmony.

This strength in the female characters is given additional might in Whyman’s interpretation of one of the most famous stage directions of all time – ‘Exit pursued by a bear’ – and one of the delights of The Winter’s Tale is seeing how each new staging approaches Shakespeare’s most demanding instruction. Here Whyman and Anna Morrissey channel female fury in the play to create a stomping and clawing women-only movement piece that becomes the bear as Colm Gormley’s Antigonus reacts separately to being pawed and dragged. It’s a smart and intriguing idea that offers something new within the original spirit of the play’s themes.

It’s a shame then that Joseph Kloska’s Leontes comes up wanting, never quite getting to grips with the depth of feeling in either section of the play. At the start, his jealousy is too hysterical, often even shrill, creating an energy level from the start that the character cannot sustain. There needs to be a calm coldness in Leontes too, a King who with barely a flicker orders the poisoning of his friend Polixenes and the murder of his baby daughter before condemning his wife to the same fate, but Kloska plays Leontes as an easily-swayed fool which undermines his supposed gravitas. 16-years later there is just not enough agony in Kloska’s final scenes, nothing of the humbled man who has torn his soul apart in grief and regret or the poignancy of an undeserved second chance. It’s difficult, of course, without being able to build this role over a long run but it rarely gets beneath the surface of a tortured but fascinating character.

Andrew French as Polixenes has greater command despite a much smaller role and Ben Caplan’s conflicted Camillo adds depth with subtle debates about defection between two very different courts and the longing for home that speak to some of the contextual issues that frame the period setting. There is a lot to enjoy in this RSC meets BBC4 production that despite some lags in the play (which are largely Shakespeare’s fault), offers a faithful reading with some contemporary resonance – although this hybrid production leans more heavily towards its origins as a theatre piece that somewhat limits its repurposing as a film. No longer ‘lost’ it joins the many other arts performances that have found a new life on film as the progress of digital theatre continues apace.

The Winter’s Tale received its world premiere on BBC4 on 25 April and is now freely available via the iPlayer. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


Swingin’ the Dream – RSC

Swingin the Dream - Royal Shakespeare Company

Shakespeare’s influence on popular culture is inestimable and while his plays are fundamental to the stage, the influence of his words and the often borrowed stories that Shakespeare made his own are felt across film, music and dance. From a ballet versions of The Winter’s Tale – a rich, psychologically complex version of which the Royal Opera House screened last summer with Edward Watson as Leontes – to Hollywood musical adaptations of The Taming of the Shrew (Kiss Me Kate), Romeo and Juliet (West Side Story) and even Hamlet (The Lion King), not to mention the High School movies that reimagined Shakespeare for a younger audience (such as 10 Things I Hate About You), Shakespeare’s understanding of the human condition has allowed his work to be translated into many different forms.

Theatremakers often build on Shakespeare’s plays to create new avenues for his work including the superb Teenage Dick at the Donmar and musicals like & Juliet which opened in 2020 or the Young Vic’s Twelfth Night which reshaped the play into a community-created musical extravaganza that opened Kwame Kwei-Armah’s tenure as Artistic Director. Now, Greg Doran at the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) has joined forces with Kwei-Armah and Jeffrey Horowitz at Theatre for a New Audience in New York to recreate an all but lost 1939 musical version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a work in progress version of which was streamed live from the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford on Saturday.

And the concept couldn’t be more timely; not only with theatres having to dream a little differently to stage productions that raise funds during a third lockdown that will likely take most venues to their one year anniversary of closure, but in also giving renewed life to a musical interpretation of Shakespeare’s play developed and performed by African-American musicians using the jazz music they created which speaks to contemporary political debates about inclusivity while reinforcing the universality of Shakespeare’s themes.

In theory, jazz seems a perfect accompaniment to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a tale of magical mischief, mayhem and romance as a group of lovers defy social convention by escaping to the woods to live freely – the very epitome of jazz and its ethos. But running for just 13 performances in 1939, Swingin’ the Dream flopped quickly before most of the script was destroyed leaving just a handful of pages and some songs. Exactly what happened to this show is open to debate, with only a handful of critical reviews suggesting either this particular marriage of Shakespeare and song was imperfectly balanced, or that the show was perhaps aimed at the wrong audience. Nonetheless the RSC, Young Vic and Theatre for a New Audience have determined to revive and recreate the missing segments with a full production to follow sometime soon.

The 55-minute concert streamed on Saturday, was described as a ‘work-in-progress’ which in practice was a chance to understand what the research team had uncovered about Swingin’ the Dream to date and to hear all of the rediscovered jazz numbers played live on stage. The show, briefly introduced by Doran, Kwei-Armah and Horowitz, was in part a narrated outline of how this familiar story was adapted, characters renamed and their occupations recast to create gender-fluidity such as making Snug the joiner a midwife played by comedian Moms Mabley. This concert version also offers some theatre history, explaining at various points who some of the famous jazz musicians and performers were, the fate of the original show and some of the 1930s context that influenced the decision-making.

Overseen by Music Director Peter Edwards (also the evening’s pianist), an Ensemble of nine readers and singers were tasked with reconstructing the original 1939 production by bringing the ‘ingredients’ together, briefly explaining the overarching story to guide the audience between the songs while announcing the arrival of the various famous faces including Louis Armstrong (Bottom) and Maxine Sullivan (Titania). This narrative structure also described the evolution of a production that had combined acted scenes, musical numbers and dance sections choreographed by Agnes de Mille (niece of legendary film director Cecil), which have also been lost. All of this offers a series of clues as to what a fuller production might look like.

This first look implies that the show was refocused on the Fairies and Rude Mechanicals – played by those well-known musicians – rather than the Lovers and political world of the Court, replacing Theseus with a more generic ‘Governor’ – allowing the production to skip quickly to the arrival of its much anticipated celebrity cast and hastening the drama and humour of their characters. This is, notably, something The Bridge Theatre did with its immersive production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 2019 (rescreened by the National Theatre at Home last summer) that found fresh and smart contemporary insight by emphasising the magical and comedy scenarios. It seems clear that for Swingin’ the Dream these characters did and will offer the most fruitful opportunities for entertainment within the show, providing much of the musical inspiration, so we can expect to see far less of the ‘driver’ characters whose romantic entanglements will be at a lower volume.

And fixing more pointedly on these characters will also have consequences for the visual experience of the show and it is clear from this early snippet that most of the scenes take place in the enchanted woodland which offers some interesting opportunities for scene designers who will need to align the magical quality of the forest with the 1930s style of music that should spring naturally from its surroundings. The title song, performed originally by the Dandridge Sisters, is piano-led and performed for the RSC by Mogali Masuku, Georgia Landes, Kemi-Bo Jacobs and Anne Odeke with a girl-group harmony so redolent of the era.

But referred to in the very next segment as ‘The Voodoo Wood’ the scene must also feel intimidating, perhaps even frightening, while the arrival of Oberon and Titania (played originally by Juan Hernandez and Sullivan) must herald a sultry romance as well. Titania sings a memory song about “Moonglow” under which she first met her Fairy King, a moment of pause performed for the RSC by Zara McFarlane that is laden with atmosphere and the breathy, almost painful reminiscence that classic jazz can evoke. To create a set that can simultaneously serve as a place of escape, hope, danger, magic and memory will be an interesting challenge for the design and lighting teams when a complete production is ready for preview.

Some of the best moments in this early concert staging of Swingin’ the Dream are those that allow the audience to imagine what the finished production may look like by drawing wider contextual connections with the cultural forces of the time. Anyone interested in the history of popular culture in the twentieth century will relish the references to the performance styles that were emerging at a time of great creativity. In a nod to the latest craze, the Jitterbug was included in an extensive “dream dance” sequence called Doing the Saboo choreographed by de Mille while the audience is reminded that a Jitterbug dance scene was cut from The Wizard of Oz released in the same year.

Film also gives us context for the arrival of Puck, the last of the major players to assemble, played by Butterfly McQueen who had been disbarred from attending the Gone with the Wind premiere in a Whites-only cinema. These stories are as much a part of the brief experience of Swingin’ the Dream as the residual script, drawing on an era where racial segregation could only be overcome on stage (to a point), where leisure time was spent in dance halls and the golden years of cinema were just beginning as Technicolor offered a very different visual experience to audiences. How faithful the finished show will be to these influences and how they will be incorporated into the production will be one of the most anticipated aspects of early previews.

Anyone hoping to see an advanced frame for the forthcoming production and perhaps an insight into how the finished show will look may have been a little disappointed that this revival is still in its early stages with no new dialogue or scenes to share as yet, but Edwards’s production did offer a more fully-staged finale, a section of music depicting the play-within-a-play that concludes A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The tale of Pyramus and Thisbe is restaged as a medley of recognisable jazz classics from leading songwriters including sampling from Jeepers Creepers, Blue Moon, Ain’t Misbehaving and She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain performed for the RSC by the full Ensemble that included Alfred Clay, Andrew French, Cornell S. John and Baker Mukasa.

Lasting around 5-minutes, this segment uses a heightened performance style to enhance the comedic incompetence of the Rude Mechanicals as Pyramus and Thisbe converse through Wall, the growls of the masked Lion are answered by the band and a lampshade on a stick doubles as the moon. The cast throw in a couple of contemporary Covid jokes with Lion unable to touch Thisbe’s abandoned scarf must mawl a second version extracted from a infection-safe plastic bag, while Wall refuses to let the classical lovers draw closer than 2 metres from him, jokes we can only hope will no longer be required by the time a final version is ready for its audience.

Nonetheless, there is plenty of evidence in this small scene alone to suggest how Shakespeare’s original text has been repurposed into song without losing the meaning or fluidity of the scene. With this beautiful music already in place but much of the script to recreate, a contemporary adaptation of Swingin’ the Dream may well take note of the 1939 critic who, recognising some imbalance, wanted to jettison some of the dialogue to give more prominence to the jazz. Yet, Shakespeare’s words will still be crucial to creating resonance while pinning the architecture of the new piece together whatever decisions are made about the musical balance or thematic emphasis.

The RSC, Young Vic and Theatre for a New Audience have a difficult but fascinating task ahead in recreating a lost work that honours the original and its biography while developing a version of Shakespeare’s most beloved summer show that offers something to modern audiences. Performed by Edwards on piano, Chris Storr on trumpet, Neil Charles on bass, Mebrakh Haughton-Johnson on clarinet and saxophone as well as
drummer Barrell Jones, the original music by Jimmy Van Heusen is beautiful and with plenty of clues to the narrative and visual aspects of the production left behind, when theatres eventually reopen, Swingin’ the Dream will be just the kind of theatre magic we’ve all been waiting for.

Swingin’ the Dream was streamed live by the RSC on 9 January and a full production in association with the Young Vic and Theatre for a New Audience is in development. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


The Secret Love Life of Ophelia – Greenwich Theatre Online

The Secret Love Life of Ophelia - Greenwich Theatre

Hamlet is a play filled with unanswered questions and we have spent four centuries trying to decode its secrets. At its heart are big philosophical questions about the purpose and value of life itself which the Danish Prince asks but never finds a satisfactory answer, but the themes of Shakespeare’s greatest play also questions the nature and proprieties of grief, of justifiable revenge against those perceived to have wronged the protagonist and the bonds of duty in parental relationships. But Shakespeare also leaves many avenues unexplored in the context and the setting, huge gaps in the tapestry of Elsinore that subsequent writers have attempted to explain.

The audience never knows why Claudius rather than Hamlet is King, Shakespeare has created a state where hereditary succession is either not the norm or has been circumvented to everybody’s satisfaction. We are never told how complicit Gertrude is in the murder of her first husband or indeed that lust was the only motive for Old Hamlet’s death. And having murdered his rival, why isn’t Claudius threatened by Hamlet at the start of the play and sees no reasons to dispatch his young nephew to his sweet sleep a little early? Perhaps most interesting of all is just what was the nature of the relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia, and what promises were made and broken between them that drove her to madness?

In 2001, Steven Berkoff imagined his own interpretation of their love affair, creating an epistolary play called The Secret Love Life of Ophelia which receives a lockdown revival and digital reworking by Greenwich Theatre. Follow-ons, prequels and new angles on classic plays or novels are fairly commonplace; some are extremely accomplished, enhancing but never intruding on the original creator’s intentions such as Tom Stoppards Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, a comic perspective on two lesser characters that uses the original Hamlet frame to considerable effect, or P.D. James’s Death Comes to Pemberly, a murderous sequel to Pride and Prejudice that works very effectively. Equally, other reworkings fail dismally and, unfortunately, Berkoff’s play doesn’t stand-up to scrutiny.

It is important, however, to distinguish between the play and the Greenwich Theatre production. The play itself is just not very good while the production decisions go some way to conceal its failings, showcasing a selection of excellent young performers that inadvertently asks some big questions about how we cast Hamlet in the twenty-first century.

The Play

Anyone repurposing a classic play or novel has to take care not to upset or misuse its psychology, that placing the original and the homage side-by-side their themes, action and charactertisation fit neatly together, the new offering a different resonance to the old. When done well, it unlocks another layer in the original play, opening-out and potentially reframing the plot in novel and interesting ways. Stoppard’s pivoted version of Shakespeare’s text (though not to everyone’s taste) uses the pre-existing frame from Hamlet as a backdrop, making the once central characters ridiculous and petulant caricatures from the perspective of those only tangentially involved in the familial saga. And Hamlet is the most yielding of plays, Shakespeare having left so much open to interpretation, not just in the ambiguity of the young Prince’s madness and motive, but in those tantalising open questions about the context of the Danish court as the play begins.

Berkoff’s mistake is to misappropriate the timeline of the action to fit his story without properly comprehending the psychological drivers of Hamlet’s character especially. The conceit of The Love Life of Ophelia is that the central couple continue their affair even after the troubled Dane has publicly shamed his young lover, and the letters they subsequently exchange passionately declare their undimmed connection to one another and the deliberate decision to deceive the court – a pseudo Romeo and Juliet denied one another by politics and duty. Berkoff laces the back and forth with occasional nods to the activities with which we are familiar – the ‘o’er hasty marriage’ of Hamlet’s mother and uncle, the burdensome secret revealed by Old Hamlet’s Ghost, the impending play where a King’s conscience will be caught and the death of Polonius. But none of it sits easily alongside Berkoff’s additional material.

That Hamlet and Ophelia continue a rather intense liaison denies the very complex experience of mourning that Shakespeare so carefully constructs for his leading man, as Hamlet is so overcome with sorrow and despair that his gloomy countenance forces the intervention of his mother and, later, thoughts of suicide that are so profoundly and immersively rendered in the play that Berkoff’s supposition seems impossible. Paralysed by woe, it is ludicrous to imagine that this young man could be so close to the abyss one moment wondering whether ‘to be’ and sending smutty messages to his girlfriend later that same day. That Berkoff has no regard for the nature of depression and grief is clear, and while the notion of a secret relationship plays into the feigned madness interpretation, it just doesn’t fit the trajectory of either character when tied to and examined through the specifically constructed architecture of Shakespeare’s original play.

But the biggest problem with The Secret Love Life of Ophelia is that it just has nothing to say or to add to our perspective on the Danish court, inserting a lewd rom com that does little to flesh-out some of Hamlet’s most tragic subplots. And surely, the most interesting reason for telling the love story of Hamlet and Ophelia is really to shine a light on Ophelia herself, a character Shakespeare uses intermittently but largely neglects. She is a cipher for things that happen to Hamlet himself, in one sense a symbol of the life he rejects and, beautiful and tragic as her death may be, lyrically expressed and impactful, it exists as a means to bring about the play’s finale, a confrontation between Laertes and Hamlet, one designed to bring the royal tragedy to its peak.

Hamlet, then, is fairly well covered, thousands of lines and hours on stage in what is one of the most demanding and fascinating roles in performance history. So, making his agency the purpose of Berkoff’s play feels misguided and unnecessary, reducing Ophelia once again to little more that the sketchy tragic lover that Shakespeare has already given us and – in Berkoff’s irritating male gaze – she becomes little more that a lusty wanton or pinning, girlish cliche, a giggling prosecco drinker with only the twin souls of love and desire to shape her character. It reinforces, once again the ancient, dichotomous representation of women as either goddesses to be worshipped or temptresses to seduce, roles Ophelia is assigned to play in the excruciating and awkward exchanges within Berkoff’s story.

But why does she have to be either? Doesn’t Ophelia deserve her own sense of agency and purpose, being Hamlet’s girlfriend is not her only characteristic so why is so little time given to her relationship with her brother and father, to her own expectations for the future, things she has learned or observed during her time at court and to the wider interior life that she possesses outside of her love for Hamlet. Instead, Berkoff fails the Bechdel test allowing her only to talk of love, she barely comments on Laertes departure for university or her shock, confusion or even grief for the loss of her own father, slain by the man she adores. Ophelia exists in this writer’s mind only to love Hamlet to give voice to Berkoff’s overtly sexualised fantasy of their intimacy described in graphic (and poorly executed) cod Shakespeare and to tamely submit to tiresome medieval maiden stereotypes waiting to be rescued from her supposedly terrible family by a knight in shining armour.

There is a far more interesting story to tell about her experience of rejected passion and how the various circumstances of her life drive her to madness and suicide. By retaining Shakespeare’s own timeline, it would be far more interesting to explore the high romance of their early courtship (pre-dating the action of the play) when presumably Hamlet’s behaviour and feeling gave rise to a mutual intimacy both felt was love. But as Ophelia is unceremoniously dispatched by Hamlet when immured in the darkest depths of his own grief, Berkoff’s piece would have fared much better by leaving Hamlet out of it and tracing Ophelia’s feelings of rejection and torment, a series of unanswered missives perhaps demanding answers, the loneliness of a girl whose family has been torn apart and the slow descent into distraction that leave her vulnerable. Hamlet has got his own play, this one should have been Ophelia’s.

Greenwich Theatre’s Production

Given the lengthy back and forth between the characters in this piece lasting over 90-minutes, on stage it is likely that The Love Life of Ophelia would be rather dull viewing but director James Haddrell has made some interesting decisions that make Berkoff’s disappointing play more palatable. Using the video messaging idea familiar to all of us in recent months, the exchange is rendered as a digital reconstruction of letters found in Ophelia’s bag on the riverbank and read essentially by ‘bots’ who change their face between each new piece of correspondence. Haddrell adds some dynamism to a potentially static play using around 40 performers sharing the evolving roles of Ophelia and Hamlet with a brief cameo from Helen Mirren as Gertrude that adds her star power.

The substance of Berkoff’s play aside, Greenwich Theatre’s production is a signal to the industry of how narrowly these roles have been cast in major productions. Hamlet particularly is usually a celebrity and most often in his mid to late 30s. There has been some racial and gender diversity among these Hamlets – and the Young Vic’s postponed version with Cush Jumbo is another Coronavirus casualty we hope to see rearranged – but how interesting it would be to see a recent graduate assume the role as in this production of The Secret Love Life of Ophelia, while there are plenty of early career performers in their late 20s or early 30s delivering remarkably good secondary roles who could offer very different perspectives on this well known character.

One of the benefits of Haddrell’s approach is its inclusivity, actors playing either role from a variety of backgrounds that does much to reinforce the universality of Shakespeare’s characters and their experiences of grief, love and anger. Whether given a few seconds or minutes of air time, each of these actors responds to and expresses the character in their own entirely valid way, and although essentially one character they represent the endless possible versions of Ophelia and Hamlet that the audience will never see unless we change the way we think about who gets to play this most revered and challenging of roles.

Any attempts to reframe a classic must understand the source material and it is clear from this Greenwich Theatre production that the actors and director really do appreciate the complexity of the characters as well as their centuries-old appeal. We are endlessly fascinated by Hamlet and Ophelia, pondering those tantalizing gaps in the context of the Danish court and the lives within that we yearn to colour-in. It is a shame that Berkoff’s unnecessarily revived play fails to add to the debate despite the thoughtful approach, resulting in an experience that frustrates more often than it delights.

The Secret Love Life of Ophelia is available for free via the Greenwich Theatre Youtube Channel until 14 August. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


Henry IV: Part One – Drama on 3

Toby Jones, Iain Glen and Luke Thompson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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