Review: Twelfth Night – Bristol Old Vic

Original Review for Broadway World UK

Twelfth Night

Comical, musical, and colourful

‘If music be the food of love, play on’… and play Wils Wilson does with Shakespeare’s chaotic, sharp-witted comedy. With cross-dressing, disguises, and a proto-discussion of gender politics, the text is playful and apt for contemporary adaptation, but Wilson’s production, while playing with the gendering of its couples, withdraws and occupies a decidedly dated time and space. While wonderfully entertaining, and a comical, musical, and colourful delight, without distinct commentary on the seventies setting or a timely political parallel, Bristol Old Vic and the Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh’s Twelfth Night is dated to the whimsical, psychedelic revels of a 1970s evening.

Housed in a beautiful abandoned building, New Age energy abounds in this gender-bent Bohemia: Continue reading “Review: Twelfth Night – Bristol Old Vic”

Review: Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory’s Henry V – Tobacco Factory Theatres

Original review: Broadway World UK

Henry V

Like the English at Agincourt, Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory aren’t unshaken, but they are victorious

Henry V, the final play in Shakespeare’s historical tetralogy, focuses on King Henry’s campaign for France, victory at Agincourt, aggressive patriotism, coming-of-age, and eventual political treaty and promise of peace with his marriage to Katharine of Valois.

From the English court to the fields of France, the performance asks a lot of our ‘imaginary forces’, even to ‘piece out [its] imperfections with [our] thoughts’, and this overt theatricality is, like King Henry’s army at Agincourt, defensive – attacking, forgiving and apologising for its faults – and defenceless in the face of a much greater force: the audience.

And, like the English at Agincourt, Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory aren’t unshaken, but they are victorious. Elizabeth Freestone’s direction is austere, with the action playing out in a darkly industrial dystopia characterised by Lily Arnold’s greyed costumes and frayed edges, steely drama and gravel underfoot. Continue reading “Review: Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory’s Henry V – Tobacco Factory Theatres”

Review: Insane Root’s Romeo and Juliet

Original review: The Reviews Hub

Insane Root's Romeo and Juliet

Joyous and tragic and tear-jerking and gorgeous

Shakespeare, ‘star-cross’d lovers’, ancestral strife, and… an open-air swimming pool? Insane Root Theatre’s ‘fair Verona’ is Eastville Park Swimming Pool, an empty, open-air pool just east of the city, and it’s the surprisingly perfect place to lay our scene. Rich as it is in imagery, romance, and rivalry, Insane Root’s Romeo and Juliet is joyous and tragic and tear-jerking and gorgeous, with its greatness cleverly tucked away at the edge of a green and covered by the gates of Verona.

An old amphitheatric Victorian lido, the pool is drained and derelict, thick with undergrowth, and growing ever darker in the dusk: these are organic grounds for a tragedy, but the true ground for tragedy in Romeo and Juliet is the jarring generic change that comes with Mercutio as a casualty in Act III and transforms a coarse, oftentimes juvenile comedy into the tragic ‘two hour traffic’ augured in the prologue. With canonic characterisation as a tragedy, it’s often challenging to pitch the comedic tone, but as Insane Root tease out the originality of classic plays by performing them in original, often unexpected, places, the pool is perfectly pitched to accommodate tradition and creation, comedy and tragedy, and to grow them together organically. Continue reading “Review: Insane Root’s Romeo and Juliet”

Review: Macbeth at Tobacco Factory Theatres

Original review: The Reviews Hub

Macbeth at the Tobacco Factory

Buzzing, bloody, and bleak

Macbeth at the Tobacco Factory opens as one of Emily Dickinson’s famous works, about a fly interposing indifferently as death falls on its speaker, ends: ‘with Blue – uncertain – stumbling Buzz –’: the lighting is stark cyan, the space dark, and the electronic soundscape buzzes and breathes around us. Yet, a fly-like buzzing as one dies is not the only similarity between the atmosphere summoned by Dickinson’s unadorned words and Adele Thomas’s austere direction of Shakespeare’s death-drenched work.

Although it’s a dagger, not a fly, that the murderous Macbeth sees before him, he and his driven-mad wife, like the words of Dickinson’s dying, ‘could not see to see’: that is, as is later observed of the Lady herself, their ‘eyes are open’, ‘but their sense is shut’. Fuelled – or fooled – by the three weird sisters’ prophecy that sovereignty shall be his, the thane is blinded by ambition and soon has blood on his hands. Continue reading “Review: Macbeth at Tobacco Factory Theatres”

Review: Insane Root Theatre’s The Tempest

Original review: TheReviewsHub

The Tempest

A respectfully and perfectly repurposed The Tempest

‘Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,’ a muddling, older man murmurs to us, collected in a crypt beneath a Medieval church in the centre of Bristol as cars and buses and bits of lost conversation rumble along beyond the low door closed behind us. ‘The isle was full of noises,’ he amends, and with that opening amendment in tense alone, Insane Root Theatre have respectfully but perfectly repurposed The Tempest, Shakespeare’s most philosophical, most reflective, and most indefinite play.

The man, aged and inelegant, is Prospero, but this is the usurped ‘prince of power’ without his power; this is Prospero at the end of the play, or rather, many-a-year after the revels of the play and the epilogue’s applause has ended. Alone in his library, a homely, hearth-like creation from Sarah Warren covered in drapes and decorated with books and bric-a-brac, Chris Donnelly’s Prospero is close to the end, and not just because he’s been placed in a crypt.

The crypt, carved and cavernous, is the corporeal and acoustic setting for Prospero’s recount of what happened to him, and he recreates the characters with some well-repurposed household trinkets: Continue reading “Review: Insane Root Theatre’s The Tempest”

5 Favourites: ‘Classics’ Reimagined for the ‘Teen Age’

Clueless (1995)

Clueless 1995

‘She was proved to have been universally mistaken.’

‘I was just totally clueless.’

The Classic… Austen’s classic comedy-of-manners, makeovers, marriages and match-making, Emma (1815)

…Reclassified meddling misses Emma Woodhouse and Cher Horowitz both have everyone else’s marital affairs on their minds – so much so that they forget the fancies and affections of their own hearts. The satirical wit of Austen’s slightly spoiled society lady finds a second home in all-American high-schooler Cher, and the high school hierarchy is lampooned with the same commentary on class, society, and the characteristics of the sexes as Emma’s English high society. The meddlesome young women both find their way to a handsome suitor who’s been close to their hearts all along, but Cher’s love is sealed with a make-out, not a marriage. Ugh, as if.

Romeo + Juliet (1996)

Romeo + Juliet 1996‘…To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.’

”Cos I’m kissing you…’

The Classic… Shakespeare’s story of ‘star cross’d lovers’ and ancestral strife, Romeo and Juliet (c.1595)

…Reclassified Baz Luhrmann’s Verona-Beach-and-revolvers reimagining of Romeo and Juliet is by no means the best cinematic version of the unlucky lovers, but it is a trailblazing translation of the traditional to the contemporary. While Roger Ebert egregiously branded it a movie for the ‘MTV’ generation – ‘Young Hearts’ really do ‘Run Free’ in the modern music – the Bard still gets top billing as Luhrmann makes use of the original language, although, with the exception of Pete Postlethwaite’s Laurence, it’s largely missing the metrical poetry of the play. Yet, Romeo + Juliet made stars of DiCaprio and Danes, its ‘star cross’d lovers’, and, to a lesser extent, Shakespeare, introducing his work to a fresh – and very profitable – demographic.

Rent (1996)Rent 1996

‘…if you wouldn’t mind lighting my candle.’

‘Oh, won’t you light the candle?’

The Classic… Puccini’s heartbreaking opera about ailing bohemians in nineteenth-century Paris, La Bohème (1895)

…Reclassified Set almost one-hundred sets of ‘five-hundred twenty-five thousand six-hundred minutes’ later than its source in New York’s Alphabet City, Jonathan Larson’s musical is full of allusions to La Bohème. Far from just modernising Rodolfo and Marcello to Roger and Mark and referencing ‘Musetta’s Waltz’, the musical transforms the artists’ outdated wasting disease into a frighteningly modern one – AIDS. Whilst the protagonists aren’t all teenagers, Rent is, arguably, a teenage retelling, reflecting the angst and appealing to the anarchy of a marginalised youth – particularly the LGBTQ+ community – who feel they’ve been failed by a culture that couldn’t care less about them. Larson’s La Bohème is bold and heartbreaking, but it’s also wholly believable.

10 Things I Hate About You (1999)

10 Things I Hate About You 1999

‘Asses are made to bear, and so are you.’

‘I guess in this society, being male and an asshole makes you worthy of our time.’

The Classic… Shakespeare’s romantic comedy with his most complicated and unromantic couple, The Taming of the Shrew (c.1590-4)

…Reclassified Katherina, with her cutting taunts and ‘scolding tongue’, is perhaps Shakespeare’s most proto-feminist creation, and so it’s no surprise her modern counterpart features in one of the more feminist teen films of the time. Along with Heath Ledger as a long-haired Petruchio, 10 Things I Hate About You is a teen-romcom-Shakespearean-comedy crossover with a kickass soundtrack. A roller-coaster of those feelings that come with falling in love, beating bullies and playing parley with over-protective parents, the film does as Shakespeare did, just with fewer words and wicked fashion, and explores that universal experience of what to do when we realise we don’t hate the one we love, not even close, not even a little bit, not even at all.

Easy A (2010)Easy A 2010

‘On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread, appeared the letter A.’

‘Perhaps you should embroider a red A on your wardrobe, you abominable tramp.’

The Classic… Nathaniel Hawthorne’s canonised scripture on sexual shame in Puritan-age America, The Scarlet Letter (1850)

…Reclassified Easy A is easily the most accessible of all the ‘classic’ adaptations: it’s the most meta – the kids are studying The Scarlet Letter and Emma Stone even summarises it for us early in the movie – the most comedic, and the most malleable in its treatment of the source material, but it still makes many of the same remarks about society’s response to women who have sex – which is worrying, when you look at the release dates. Protagonist Olive faces many of the same prejudices as Hester Prynne as she tries to fight her way through the high school rumour mill, just as the Puritan townsfolk pass judgement on Hester, but ultimately their kindhearted and courageous character prevails. Although, tragically, only one gets to ride off on a lawnmower.

See this ace post, ‘Classic Lit and Teen Flicks: Why it Works’, for a more in-depth analysis on what makes these adaptations work.

Essay: Fools, Falsity & the Four Tragedies – An Essay on the Tragic Fool

The Gravedigger in Hamletthe Fool in King Lear, the Porter in Macbeth, all RSC

‘By logic and tradition’, writes critic Julian Markels, the ‘fool belongs to comedy’[1]; and yet, one finds a fool-of-sorts – clown or companion, gravedigger or gatekeeper – in four of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies: King Lear, Hamlet, Macbeth and Othello. The Early Modern fool likely ‘came down from the Morality plays’[2] as a distant, and altogether more comic, descendent of the Medieval Vice. And, as critics have noted, even when relegated to the practical role of court jester, and thus ‘confined […] to what was set down for him’[3], the fool ‘often disturbed the dramatic unity of the piece’[4]. This study, utilising the views of critics who have endeavoured to identify this elusive figure, will aim to theorise the role Shakespeare’s tragic fools are truly playing. Continue reading “Essay: Fools, Falsity & the Four Tragedies – An Essay on the Tragic Fool”

Review: Film, Form & a Female Hamlet – Manchester’s Royal Exchange Hamlet (2014)


Giants of stage and screen frame an aggressively bold and capitalised pre-recorded HAMLET, but at what cost to live performance?

To screen, or not to screen: is that the question we must now ask of live theatre?Manchester Royal Exchange’s latest production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet is forging a new form, that of recorded theatre, as it’s screened to cinemas this spring after first being filmed at the end of its Autumn 2014 run. But coupled with another formal infidelity – a female Hamlet in the form of a fearless Maxine Peake – is the effect as fresh as Ophelia’s open grave or as chap-fallen as poor Yorick?

Taking its cue from NT Live, ROH Live, and Live from Stratford-Upon-Avon, the production sits astride the stage-screen dichotomy with pride: presented on admission with a program-of-sorts, it gives Maxine Peake top billing above the Bard. These tropes of stage and screen sandwich an aggressively bold and capitalised ‘HAMLET’; an image that, in itself, is a somewhat accurate abridgement of the viewing experience.

Firstly, Peake’s Hamlet is refreshingly fearless for the infamous man of inaction. From a scene of unashamed sexuality in which the book Hamlet carries, the image of the thinker, is subverted to symbolise the crude doings of a phallus, to one of agonisingly ironic innocence as she is cradled by Gertrude, crying like a child, after fatally shooting Polonius, Peake is unafraid to force her Hamlet to every extreme, and the audience follows her with fervour. The scene with Katie West’s doe-eyed Ophelia is a tour de force of her dynamism, a sweet coquettishness crushed under the sole of Peake’s stamped foot as she spits, ‘you should not have believed me!’. The forcefulness of her approach is not without flaw, as some moments stray from bravely going where no Hamlet has gone before to an erratic charade of bellowing and raspberry blowing, but even this, when performed with such vigour, seems to suggest something new and masquerade-like about Hamlet’s madness. So while Hamlet himself may cry ‘frailty, thy name is woman!’, Peake’s performance is its very antithesis.

The same is not true of Polonius’s gender reversal. Transformed into Gillian Bevan’s appositely pathetic Polonia, the portrayal is slapped with the same problem as Prospero being female in Julie Taymor’s 2006 Tempest: the added maternity is a motherly betrayal and Ophelia appears to be offered up as bait for Hamlet to bite. Perhaps an unwelcome expectation, but practitioners of new theatrical forms must be aware of what other performances, of gender or otherwise, an audience is accustomed to and likely to be accompanied by in the auditorium. And this isn’t a new, politically correct nuisance, even Shakespeare and his contemporaries had to be aware of the expectation for cuckolded husbands to be forcibly chastened in public parades.

The refreshing freedom of playing with form isn’t confined to gender reversal. As a new form, recorded theatre has to offer something new to the performance, and here it is the subtle portrayal of Hamlet’s inaction in two particular scenes. The first, shot from a low angle, has Hamlet looming silent and still in the far ground as Claudius prays in the foreground. The second, in the following scene, frames Hamlet in the foreground, but is shot from behind, revealing the gun to the screen audience while it remains hidden from Gertrude. Although perhaps lost on the in-the-round live audience, Williams’s use of that Hitchcockian suspense-cinema hallmark builds tension until Hamlet finally acts and   shoots Polonius. These moments are refreshing because they demonstrate the success of the new form as a marriage of stage director Sarah Frankcom’s staging and screen director Margaret Williams’s shot framing.

The piece plays with form in every aspect, even moving the ever-famous ‘to be or not be’ soliloquy to be a second-act opener, and is perhaps capitalising on the none too solid – or should that be sullied? – flesh of Hamlet’s textual form as it exists in varying Quarto and Folio versions, but to what effect? At times it is profitable, as in Peake’s female Hamlet and the dual-rolling of the Ghost and Claudius, the latter not only taking advantage of John Shrapnel’s skill, but allowing lighting design a part in the storytelling, characterising the former by the softness of Lee Curran’s suspended light bulbs and the latter with stark white spots and squares. Yet, sometimes it embezzles us, the audience paying the £13.50 admission price to see a piece of recorded theatre, out of the experience; often it was impossible to discern a low rumble from the effect of subtle textural sound-scaping in the hanging notes and haunting swells of Alex Baranowski’s score or from the reverberations of an action film next door in screen nine. Although this is not the fault of either stage nor screen director, it was, apologetically, part of the experience paid for.

The Royal Exchange’s Hamlet was a bold and aggressive capitalising on all that is great about theatre and cinema, but has the essence of live theatre forever lost its top billing to film? Or is this just theatre arming itself against its own sea of ticket-selling troubles? Theatre as we know it, with its roots in the Early Modern playhouses of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, was a distinctly commercial form in the same way we think of today’s cinema, and so perhaps the question is not to screen or not to screen, as the answer is inevitably yes, but to see or not to see: it’s going to be there anyway.

March 23rd 2015, cast includes Maxine Peake, John Shrapnel & Katie West, click picture for link to production site★★★½