Life’s but a walking shadow

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With no more tickets on the mantelpiece, and no more big London productions on the horizon (no, I haven’t got tickets for Hamlet with Benedict Cumberbatch, along with most of the world…) I am turning to film for a Shakespeare kick.

A few weeks ago I re-watched Shakespeare in love (which feels like it almost counts as canon) and I am currently watching The Hollow Crown. I totally managed to miss them when they were on in 2012 (too busy watching synchronised swimming?) but I can see why they were so widely praised. Richard II in particular was fantastic – both in dramatic direction and so visually stunning. I had distant memories of having seen it some years ago, with Ralph Fiennes in the title role, but the only bits which had really stuck in my mind were the “sceptered isle” speech and an odd bit of slapstick with various hot-heads running out of gloves with which to challenge one another. This time round it seemed beautifully, wonderfully clear, and I’m looking forward to catching it on stage. Ben Wishaw was outstanding as a fey, unworldly monarch though – I don’t think anyone else could do it as well.

I’ve watched Henry IV as well – both parts – and they seem to have less to them. Perhaps it’s the very nature of a history play, that it won’t necessarily have a perfect story arc, but I found neither the story of the rebellion nor the playboy prince totally compelling. After all, how much can I care about a threat to Henry’s throne, when we know he took it from Richard? And how can I care about the idle doings of a drunken gang, who seem not just hedonistic but unprincipled, and where I cannot but agree with Hal’s father that he behaves very badly? And the final pay-off seems unfair – can Hal only be a good king by being gratuitously rude to his old companion? (Poor Simon Russell Beale, he’s not coming out of this year terribly well…)

I’m still looking forward to watch Henry V – and it will be interesting to see it after the set-up. Like most English people, I have seen both Laurence Olivier’s and Kenneth Branagh’s version (it’s compulsory before they let you have a passport, right?) but I think there is more to be found in it. It’s been a Hiddleston-heavy Shakespeare year, but I don’t think I regret it…

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Finish, good lady…

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It seems a little forward, only eight months into this undertaking, to be worrying about the end. But this article has somewhat put the wind up me – if Mark Lawson hasn’t managed to see all of Shakespeare yet what hope is there for me? It is making me more determined to seek out the unusual in my travels – since clearly the RSC cannot be relied upon – and perhaps it isn’t too soon to be thinking about setting up my own theatre troupe, just in case…

Anyway, I am willing to take bets on what you think the last Shakespeare play will be – the one with which I complete the set, I mean, not the last one I ever see! Or, for the more pessimistic, how many you think I won’t have seen by the end of the 10 years…

Antony and Cleopatra

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Antony and Cleopatra

8 August 2014

Deciding that going to the Globe was not enough of a challenge, I booked tickets for a performance which started at midnight. I managed to persuade (Bully? Encourage?) a surprisingly large number of people to come with me – although we all got more nervous as the production got closer and we remembered quite how difficult it was to get transport around London at 3 in the morning. A couple even went to length of booking themselves a weekend in Bath just to avoid the issue!

It was an exceptionally damp night, too. We weren’t standing (I’m not that much of a masochist) but the groundlings did look very damp, and our view of the stage (otherwise pretty good) was interrupted by the occasional raindrop dripping from the thatch. In the Globe, somehow all of this just gets transmuted into extra atmosphere though – along with the moment where Eve Best leaned against a pillar and it gave a rather ominous crack.

Eve Best was Cleopatra and Clive Wood was Antony – and they were a truly magnificent pairing. I was already a massive fan of Eve Best – not just Nurse Jackie, I saw her as Beatrice at the Globe in 2012 – and she didn’t disappoint, being as mercurial and magisterial as the role demands. I didn’t know what to expect from Clive Wood (I vaguely remembered him in London’s Burning – although, unhelpfully, he didn’t feature in the recent re-runs on London Live) and in the end he delivered a really powerful Antony, one who was perhaps a bit bluff and definitely stupider than Cleopatra (he reminded me of Jack Aubrey in that respect – incredibly talented in his milieu, and somewhat out of his depth with the womenfolk…). Other notable cast members included Phil Daniels, doing a lovely cockney Enobarbus (and doing it well, mind you), and the splendidly named Jolyon Coy (who looked like a young Rupert Penry-Jones) as Octavian.

I will admit that this is probably the play I’ve seen so far that I’ve followed least well – no previous familiarity, combined with the lateness of the hour and the imperfect acoustic of the Globe means that I wouldn’t care to be closely examined on every word of the dialogue – but it is one I look forward to coming back to. Like many Globe productions, it didn’t feel like it had a specific direction it was trying to take. This wasn’t about subtext, or drawing parallels, this was just about telling the story – albeit telling it well.

I always enjoy the Globe’s economy of prop/scenery, which came to the fore here. Scenes in Alexandria were heralded only by two large carpets dangling from the ceiling, while Rome got a couple of very fine SPQR banners. Best was the bit where Cleopatra made her entrance on stage lying on a bed being pulled by burly slave boys. Eve seemed to being enjoying it every bit as much as the rest of us would!

In fact, the whole show was a bit more of a giggle than I thought it would be for a traditional Shakespearean tragedy (final body count – at least 5 named characters). As well as Eve playing the disturbing indications of poor structural integrity at the Globe for giggles, Clive managed to get a laugh out of Antony’s botched suicide attempt. And the daft scene with the snake-seller was actually written in by Shakespeare, so there’s some mood whiplash for you… It did make me wonder if they always did it like that, or if this was a special for their second performance of the night – I suppose the only way to find out would be to go again!

All in all, though, it was extremely impressive acting for a graveyard slot. One of my companions (temporarily with a crutch for their knee) got to take the backstage lift up to where we were sitting – they said they got to go through the area where the actors were getting ready, which was pretty cool (apparently no-one was juggling like in Shakespeare in Love though).

Forgot to fit in above – the Globe does really good all senses action – with incense for Alexandria (bit disturbing as I’m not sure church was the vibe they were going for) and the wonderful music they always have. You also get everyone dancing at the end of the show, which does soften the blow. Perhaps someone should have suggested it to the National Theatre for Lear…


 

Guardian Review here http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2014/may/30/antony-and-cleopatra-review-shakespeares-globe – until re-reading it I’d somehow managed to forget Clive Wood’s bare chest at the beginning of the play (probably a good thing) and Eve Best toying with various members of the audience – who all looked absolutely thrilled…

Richard III

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Richard III at St Paul’s, Covent Garden

24July 2014

This was a deliberate and considerable change from my other Shakespeares so far. This production was a promenading one, through the grounds of St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden. No stars in the cast (Martin Freeman is starring in another production currently on at the Trafalgar Studios, which seemed over-priced, and the preliminary reviews, kind though they have largely been, have backed up my belief that Shakespeare would not be his natural metier), and a ticket price to match – at £17.99, the cheapest so far. (It might be interesting to see what the most expensive will be – and when and why! Auditor me is adding a new page to the spreadsheet right now…)

A work friend put me on to it – they are a trustee of the charity who did the production, and their husband did the lighting. And a friend of mine from school happened to be in the country at the time, so they came along with me and my housemate.

It has been an unbelievably hot week or so in London, and this gave the production its first memorable note – sweatiness. The actor playing Richard (David Hywel Baynes – I’m getting this from the programme – though the whole cast was memorable, they were all unknown) started off with lank, greasy-looking hair – by the end of the night, it, and he, and his costume except for the fake hunch, were wet through (thank god he carried a large hanky). The sweatiness was evenly matched with the spitting (some deliberate – go Lady Anne! – and again, Richard would have been grateful for the hanky…) which may have been a result of the need to project quite far to ensure everyone in the garden could hear (it was a good turnout though, for a boiling Thursday evening). On the whole they did astonishingly well – the only scene where I remember not being able to hear some of the dialogue was the dream sequence near the end, and none of it is really that memorable/important.

It was a small cast, which led to memorable note number 2 – doubling-up. I love this, albeit as a meta, not-quite-in-the-moment type thing, and there was plenty of it going on. The only person who didn’t double was Richard. We had King Edward and Stanley played by the same person, Lady Anne and Prince Edward, Clarence and Buckingham (unlucky actor, he gets murdered twice!) and most memorably and brilliantly, Mark Hawkins as Catesby, Queen Margaret (with terrifying ginger wig and bulging eye) and then as handsome Richmond. His playing of Margaret was mesmerising (and what opened the play – they started with the three Sons of York murdering Edward of Lancaster and being cursed by Margaret, traditionally the end of Henry VI) and gave a rather different feel to the whole thing – this sense of a malevolent curse, rather than just the malevolent will of Richard III, being behind the actions on stage.

Memorable note number three has to be the staging in toto. It was a promenading performance, although they sensibly kept the number of moves relatively low, and they were well handled in terms of timing (both breaking up the action and fitting with the flow) and in terms of no-one breaking character (although it helps that Richard III breaks the fourth wall himself so often). At one point I walked past Richard and he touched me on the shoulder and I actually shuddered. To be fair, the hand was surprisingly cold given the weather (I wonder if it was the one he had bound up – we were concerned about the long-term likelihood of cramp/circulation problems…). Both my companions also managed to get themselves smeared with Kensington Gore, which was being liberally splashed around – but even so, were weren’t talking Titus Andronicus levels of blood!

The lighting was really well done, given it had to cope with the move from daylight to night-time over the course of the performance. The props were minimal in a good way – the only ones that really stayed in the mind (apart from Margaret’s wig and Richard’s hanky) were the throne, surrounded by large poles and a bit like a blue version of the iron throne, and the cage in which Richard decided to spend the night before the battle – largely I think because it allowed him the chance to writhe and move a lot – the actor was good, but clearly loving hamming up the limp and the whole performance (not too far, just far enough – Richard is a pretty hammy guy, especially when he’s talking to the audience).

My school friend had just been reading the Rivers of London books, so they loved the setting (the first book takes place around St Paul’s, and has a plot point involving Charles Macklin, whose plaque we could see inside the church). We were only mildly disturbed by the crowds thronging the street entertainers outside the church. And the coke I had in the interval was warm. Otherwise, I’m not sure I had any complaints to make…


 

No Guardian review, so here’s one from “what’s on stage” http://www.whatsonstage.com/london-theatre/reviews/07-2014/richard-iii-review_34935.html

King Lear

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King Lear at the National Theatre

27 June 2014

It’s taken me a while to get round to writing this one up. Firstly, because I’d booked tickets to see it when I was insanely busy. Secondly, because it all hit a little too close to home. I started this project in memory (loving memory, if that’s not too clichéd) of my grandmother, and all the things she was before dementia took her. Seeing an incredibly powerful play about growing old and losing one’s mind felt very much like pouring salt into a deep and gaping wound.

So. This was another extension of a big-name production – Simon Russell Beale as the titular king, directed by Sam Mendes, at the National Theatre. The last production I saw here was Antigone – do they ever do cheerful shows? In future I expect to see more shows, you know, when they are originally scheduled, but given how far in advance some shows sell, it wasn’t going to happen in the first year. I also do really want to try and catch some at Stratford. But this is all displacement from writing about the show…

The cast was not starry starry starry – Simon Russell Beale and Anna Maxwell Martin (as Regan) were the biggest names – but they were almost all exceptionally good, as you would expect. The real stand-outs for me were Adrian Scarborough’s Fool – the saddest, wisest character in the play, Sam Troughton as Edmund – evil and totally compelling – a proto-Richard III but less successful (or not – I should check which round those plays were written), and Tom Brooke with the honourable Edgar, which really is an exceptionally odd part. Strangely, Anna Maxwell Martin I thought was rather poor in some of her delivery. She had a swooping intonation, and a tendency to start slow and then get faster to the point of babbling – and following her was not made easier as she whipped her around and the sound level changed dramatically. I can only assume that this was some kind of deliberate direction (to go with her clear alcoholism) – to me it was simply off-putting.

Simon Russell Beale was brilliant – an impish, mercurial character, at times still fearsome and intelligent, the masterful king, and other times lost and lonely – and managing to switch between the two breathtakingly well. He used his physical presence extremely well – developing these tiny, nervous tics which showed his mental sense and gave the audience (well, me at least) the genuine frustration you get watching someone with a tic. In particular, the way he would run his hand down his leg was a brilliant indicator of his state of mind. Simon Russell Beale is not a tall man, and they used this well – although capable of being physically commanding, he did broken down brilliantly too. And the point of his senility was made painfully obvious when one whole scene played out in front of a statue of Lear in his prime.

There were many shocking moments – and not just when Edgar appeared naked and Lear stripped down to his pants (but thankfully no further). The death of the Fool was so brutal and so unexpected that I couldn’t bear to watch it – likewise the blinding of Gloucester. When Lear carried in Cordelia’s dead body (no small feat by Simon Russell Beale) it was utterly heart-rending. Hell, even going back to the beginning and Lear’s treatment of Cordelia was a fair indication of the way the evening would go – I remember being on the edge of my seat as Lear made her stand on hers, waiting for the King of France to save her (yes I knew it was going to happen, I don’t think googling the plot of Shakespeare counts as cheating). Yet some of the other deaths were almost snatched from us – not just Gloucester’s off-stage exit, related movingly by Edgar, but the traditional Grand Guignol, bodies-littering-the-stage final scene was almost rushed over – I don’t think, if I hadn’t known in advance I would have picked up Regan drinking the poison meant for Goneril’s husband (a fitting end for the alcoholic), for example. There may have been other examples I didn’t pick up at all!

I left at the end feeling as brutalised as one does at the end of most Shakespeare tragedies, but with one exception. In most tragedies, it is expected that some fatal flaw in the protagonist has driven them into the spiral of death – that they are to blame and that therefore their death can come as a release. Well, Lear’s death is mercy to him, but it seemed his only flaw was to have dementia. All of the actions he took – the brutal behaviour, the changes of mood – seemed to be typical of that condition, rather than innate of the man (who had, after all, inspired love in many – Cordelia, the Fool, Kent). I was in uneasy sympathy with Goneril’s suggestion that he be looked after by their servants – the only that was lacking, it seemed was the love to watch him kindly and give him what freedom might be possible.

I’m not sure how well the audience took to my flippant comments at the end and interval, but truly, they were the only way I could cope.


 

Guardian Review – http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2014/jan/24/king-lear-olivier-theatre-review

 


 

P.S. Wait, the fool doesn’t always die (let alone get beaten to death by Lear)? *shakes fist* *assumes Kirk-like position* MEEEEEEENDEEEEEES!!!

P.P.S. Lear was written 1603 to 1606, Richard III approximately 1592. Which makes Edmund a refinement on the magnificent bastard, rather than a forebear…

Coriolanus

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Coriolanus at the Donmar Warehouse

13 Feb 2014

So this was the first in my project to see all 38 plays in 10 years on the stage, and the one that, indeed, sparked the whole notion. Tom Hiddleston played Coriolanus, so the production was sold out, so they had a ballot for an extra week and naturally I won tickets. Well, the chance to pay for tickets. I got two in the front row of the balcony, and then had to find someone to go with. The friend I eventually went with was up for it, mainly because they had stayed up all night on New Year’s Eve to get day tickets and then fallen asleep during the show!

When we met up beforehand, they had said they had been surprised by the queue of fan girls outside when she came – and apparently Tom had been very generous in signing stuff outside afterwards…

Aaaaand on to the show. The Donmar Warehouse is very small, very intimate (which is cool) and the stage production reflected it by being very minimal. Plain floor (although various members of the cast painted squares on it at various times), graffittoed brick back wall, almost all the action carried out with chairs and a lectern. Which worked surprisingly well, for a play about a mob and a war!

The cast was very good – apart from Tom Hiddleston, Menenius was played by Mark Gatiss, one of the tribunes was the bloke who played Don John in Much Ado About Nothing two years ago with David Tennant (clearly has a line in playing evil Shakespearean bit parts. And playing them well.), Martius’ mother was played by one of the old biddies from Cranford, and his wife was played by Birgitte Hjort Sorenson – last seen as a Danish POW/sex pest in Bluestone 42 (somewhat appropriate as all she did, largely, was kiss Tom. We should be so lucky to get paid for it.)

The play was very engaging – I genuinely like it – although I don’t think anyone quite plays up the angles I would around the way he brings about his own downfall by never standing his ground, being incredibly politically naïve even though he is an astute warrior. And the fickleness of the mob. I think you could do interesting/weird/good X-factor references. As , the quality of talking Shakespeare varied. Gatiss, Volumnia, and Hiddleston seemed to understand it the best (and Elliot Levy – the tribune), many of the others were in that annoying “dramatic=shouty” mode, and letting it roll off the tongue rather than get meaning from it.

Hiddleston, I thought, was really really brilliant. Particularly the physical side of things – the scenes where he was wounded actually made me wince with sympathetic pain. There was a shower scene which was impressively un-sexy despite Hiddleston’s naked chest – the mixture of washing off blood, the impressive wound make-up, and the acting of pain were really, really good. He was excellent in the latter scenes where he has to be hard with Menenius and then melt with his mother. The sarcasm when he went through the marketplace, and the anger in the Senate were also awesome.

Gatiss was also excellent – perfect mixing of light and shade – as the light-hearted patrician. And Hadley Fraser gave just the right amount of homoerotic wotsit (but who wouldn’t for the Hiddleston) as Tullius Aufidius –although the decision to make all the Volsciis northern was a bit obvious for barbarians (did wonder if Fraser’s beard was a subtler nod though).

All in all I really liked it. Everyone else was giving it a standing ovation, which I thought was a bit OTT, until I realised it was the last night and we were the only ones not yet standing. So we stood up in a hurry. I hope we weren’t too obvious, but we were in the front row of the balcony so, uh, maybe?

The queues for Tom were not small, and he didn’t come out. Apparently there had been incidents before. Rabid fangirls are clearly dangerous!


 

Guardian review: http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2013/dec/18/coriolanus-review-donmar-warehouse

Rehearsal piccies: http://www.whatsonstage.com/london-theatre/news/11-2013/rehearsal-pics-tom-hiddleston-and-hadley-fraser-pr_32754.html

Fan issues: http://claireyfairy1.tumblr.com/post/71902086315/so-about-the-tom-hiddleston-fans-at-coriolanus, http://www.bubblews.com/news/1778027-my-personal-take-on-the-fan-frenzy-surrounding-coriolanus-and-tom-hiddleston

Prologue

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This is the ongoing account of my ten-year Shakespeare New Year Resolution. At the start of 2014, when my beloved (and very well educated) grandmother passed away, I decided to do something in her honour. Since one of her many talents was in English – and one of the stories she would re-tell was her going out to see a Shakespeare play the night before her final school exams, blithely telling her mother (incorrectly) that it was revision – it seemed appropriate to make a plan to see all of Shakespeare, staged. The timescale seemed a reasonable compromise between something ambitious (a Shakespeare play every quarter) and yet achievable. It’s only when you look at the list that you realise how rarely some Shakespeare is performed – Cymbeline anyone? Pericles, Prince of Tyre?? King John??? Of course, I needed a few more rules to follow, just to make it interesting.

  • The show has to be performed live. No film or TV versions (sorry, Hollow Crown, you don’t count!). The jury is out on NT live or similar showings – it may depend on how desperate I get to finish the list…
  • The show has to be Shakespeare. West Side Story will not count as a Romeo and Juliet substitute, alas. Should I be offered Shakespeare in another language (if the Globe ever does another international season!) it likely will not count.
  • Shows I have seen before do not count – not just to allow me a clean slate, but because the ones I have already seen include some of my favourites and I’m happy to have an excuse to see them again.
  • I will seek out an interesting and varied programme of Shakespeare to go to. Just going to every RSC show for the next ten years will not do.
  • This will be the bare minimum of my Shakespeare viewings – and indeed my theatre-going. More will be aspired to – and may also make it into the blog.

A friend of mine suggested the blog, and I have taken it up – more as a way of keeping track, than as something I expect anyone to be passionately interested in. Nonetheless, here it is, and I very much welcome comments and suggestions for future shows!