Though this be madness there should be method in it

Hamlet – English Repertory Theatre @ Cockpit Theatre, until 15 March 2015 (tickets)

I would like to open this review by mentioning that Civilian Theatre does not see itself as one of those critics that takes a perverse pleasure in lacerating poor productions with a damning review; chuckling to oneself with each stab of the keyboard. In the four years of reviewing plays, Civilian Theatre has only really laid into two productions (Babel and Peter & Alice) and both were big B02J4494-210enough to make it unlikely that my chiding remarks would have any real impact on the sensitivities of those involved.

With smaller-scale, or up and coming, companies it usually preferable to take a more modulated tone; criticism can serve two purposes, on one hand a review is written so that a potential ticket buyer can draw something meaningful about a play whilst a theatre company may also use it to draw insight from what a person distanced from the production process took away from the evening.

So in a roundabout way, and with the previous two paragraphs forming a mea culpa for what is to follow, we reach Hamlet, usually by William Shakespeare but here pared-down to 90 minutes and subject to reworking by the English Repertory Theatre.

Now I have been a stalwart defender of the right to adapt Shakespeare in order to draw in new audiences or to cast fresh perspectives on the action. I loved both of Phyllidia Lloyd’s productions at the Donmar (Julius Caesar and Henry IV), and felt that cutting close to four hours from Henry IV Part I & Part II was entirely validated due to the way it thrillingly reinterpreting the relationship dynamics between the lead roles.

However it is a high risk approach and one has to be sure that every snip from the text is dramatically justified and lends to the clarity and purpose of the production. So in this version it is understandable that you would excise much of the political intrigue that swirls around Elsinore, cutting Fortinbras and Hamlet’s trip to England completely and narrowing the action to Hamlet’s coterie in order to fit it to the school setting.

What is less understandable is why you would then reallocate dialogue so that Horatio delivers Fortinbras’ final lines in a cod-Norwegian accent. It is a terribly misjudged comic coda for what is ostensibly a tragedy, and also acts as a strangely out-of-place addendum at odds with the key themes that have been drawn out in the cut-down text.

This is just one example of the confusion that mars a production that reeks of being cannily targeted at the school syllabus; the stripped down running time and the schoolyard setting feel  little more than a lure to entice the financially powerful student trip market. The use of a school as a framing device is never justified, and leads to far more questions than answers, so that in the end it becomes a performance that lacks narrative coherence.

<<Read the full review here>>

The Civil Shortlist – 2014

Well the plays have been revisited, the little grey cells put back into action and the oracle consulted. In short and without further ado, Civilian Theatre is proud to present the runners and riders in the second annual shortlist for The Civil Awards. [Cue much fanfare, fireworks and underhand, dirty trick campaigns]. Bribes, whilst having little effect on the outcome, will still be gratefully received.

It has been ferociously competitive in some categories and this year it is female performers who have far out performed their male counterparts. The honourable mentions list is arguably be a top 5 in itself.

In the end – having combined Best Support Actor into being for both men and women – it was impossible to reduce it to just five. So six have been shortlisted in another high calibre selection.

Another new category is Best Musical, which reflects the fact that below the surface and away from the big theatres, musical theatre is still doing some pretty interesting stuff. Last year’s Civilian Theatre Play of the Year ‘The Scottsboro Boys’ has transferred to the West End and it feels the form deserves its own categories.

Winners will be announced in the run-up to Christmas.

Best Actor – Female

Honourable Mentions:

Harriet Walter (Henry IV), Helen McCrory (Medea), Lisa Dwan (Not I, Footfalls & Rockaby), Phoebe Waller-Bridge (The One) and Anita Hegh (The Wild Duck).     


Best Actor – Male

Honourable Mentions:

Andrew Scott (Birdland), Andrew Twaites (The Libertine Has Left The Building) and Simon Russell Beale (King Lear)


Best Supporting Actor (Male/Female)


Best Director


Best Musical

 

‘Presume not that I am the thing I was’ in Lloyd’s radical new Henry IV

Henry IV – Donmar Warehouse, until 29 November 2014 (tickets)

So here we are back at the Donmar Warehouse, back in a Phyllidia Lloyd production, back in prison, back with an all-female cast and, sadly, back to howls of protest emanating from the comment boards. Despite the compelling evidence of last year’s Julius Caesar for the benefits of seeing women perform ‘male’ roles, including Harriet Walter putting in the performance of the year as Brutus, little seems to have changed and so the old Harriet Walter (King Henry) 2 Photo credit Helen Maybanks.jpgarguments have been dusted off and trotted back out.

To incite further ire Phyllidia Lloyd has radically altered Shakespeare’s original text. This is not a snip here, a cut there. This is Henry IV Parts I and II, totalling almost six hours of performance, smashed together and pared down to 120 minutes. That really is an audacious move.

It is also a smart one. May directors have discovered how difficult it is to change Shakespeare by working around the fringes; if you are looking to show something new within something old then far better to prune the excess foliage until what is obscured below is revealed. Shakespeare’s talent did on occasion lead to an explosion of brilliance, his imagination working so fast that one play can contain more plot strands than most writers can work into several; this is his genius but the audience, unpicking the complexity of plot and language, can lose focus on anything that isn’t centre-stage.

Henry IVIn Henry IV productions almost all exclusively focus on the Hal/Falstaff dynamic; it is the interesting complexity of the prince we know will become the near-mythic Henry V, and his relationship with the greatest tragicomic creation of his age. However in Lloyd’s reduction we see this become a play that focuses on the dynamics of a father with two sons, and a son with two fathers.

With Harriet Walter as the dying king it makes sense to ensure that the most is made of an actor of her calibre. By barely cutting Henry IV’s lines, it makes the role far more central to the play. Much of Falstaff’s activities outside of Hal’s orbit are cut and this results in a balancing of Falstaff and Henry IV and creates two much clearer allegiances for Hal.

The resulting time is given over to the rebels, and in particular Jade Anouka’s sparky Hotspur – a brilliant performance that brings to vivid life Frank Kermode’s description of Hotspur’s lines being ‘anti-poetry, a contempt for poetry as flummery and affectation’. By stripping the text it aligns Hotspur and Hal as the son the king wished he had and the son that he wished he hadn’t. It also allows room for Hotspur’s wife, Lady Percy (Sharon Rooney), to shine. The scenes with her husband and mourning his death are often lost amid the action but here they are in focus and Rooney gives a heartbreakingly tender performance of someone who loses a husband and then desperately seeks to avoid losing a father.

<<Continue to full review>>