Talking Theatre – Double Podcast Bonanza

Somehow slipping through the net towards the end of Summer was the latest in my occasional updates from the world of podcast. Brought to the public as ever by Tim Watson at the (As Yet Unnamed) London Theatre Podcast, this week brings a double bill of updates covering musicals from Kinky Boots, Dusty and Thoroughly Modern Millie, gritty new writing in And Then Come The Nightjars, less gritty writing in Hatched ‘n Dispatched.

And of course an inevitably in depth look at the mania surrounding a certain Mr Cumberbatch in a certain play by a certain playwright.  a long diversion   This week we cast our eyes other musicals, early Russian naturalism and ancient Greek tragedy. An eclectic mix as ever.

You can listen to Thoroughly Modern Millie and Hamlet here: As Yet Unnamed London Theatre Podcast 

You can listen to Kinky Boots, Hatched ‘n Dispatched, Dusty, The Man Who Had All The Luck and Here Come The Nightjars: As Yet Unnamed London Theatre Podcast 

Warning: This episode contains plenty of Benedict Cumberbatch related discussion.

Enjoy (and, as always, thoughts and feedback are welcome)

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“He’s loved of the distracted multitude, / Who like not in their judgment, but their eyes”

Hamlet – Barbican Theatre, until 31 October 2015 (returns and day tickets only)

“He’s loved of the distracted multitude, / Who like not in their judgment, but their eyes”

Shakespeare, as is so often the case, provides the perfect introduction to the matter. He may have been giving voice to Claudius’ concern about how to deal with Hamlet following the death of Polonius, but these fifteen words pithily capture the frenzy surrounding Benedict and the Bard.

Whilst I do not intend to rehash the countless articles, Twitter-debates and journalistic etiquette that preceded opening night, one cannot ignore the implications of the media circus for the production. That the show was going to sell tickets was never in doubt, but the collective madness that took hold shocked everyone. Cumberbatch may be a star name but the West End is hardly lacking in this department; Oscar winner and genuine Hollywood A-lister Bradley Cooper could be seen in his boxers in The Elephant Man, while John Goodman and Damien Lewis are flexing their stage muscles in Mamet. Both shows sold well but not close to the stratospheric demand for Hamlet.

I disregard the casual elitism of those who seem to fear the masses will come bearing placards professing their undying love, wolf-whistle the sweet prince and general treat the experience like feeding time at the zoo. My view is that if just one-tenth of the near 40,000 people who bought tickets decide that theatre might be for them then I don’t really care if the only reason they had for going was because they live in a house built of discarded copies of Sherlock fanzines.

However we must consider how audience expectations and the surrounding pressures may have impacted on the production. In the theatre we allow the illusion of being outside of reality, but it would be naïve to believe that Lyndsey Turner, Benedict Cumberbatch and all others involved did not feel the weight of hype pressing down on them. Productions face a difficult problem when the audiences’ focus is so clearly on one man; they are attempting to perform Hamlet the play, but many are watching for Hamlet the man.

<<Continue to full review>>

Bloggers, Press, Twitter-spats and Facebook-cliques. Or how to cause offence without really trying

As much as we like to pretend otherwise, the vast majority of blogs are read by not many people. That doesn’t reduce their value. If people are reading what you have to say, and gaining something from it then does it matter if it is 10 people or 10,000. Brand recognition, quality of writing, length of service or knowing how to game google; whatever the reason, there are few sites that hoover up the vast majority of web clicks searching for reviews.

This blog has always been comfortable with its hit count (its not the number of clicks that matters but the number of repeat visitors, ooh-er missus etc etc). And anyone who has bothered to read anything on the site will note that it contains an almost perverse desire to write in a style entirely out-of-keeping with the move to Buzzfeed listicles and short-form content designed to be read through the latest phone gadgetry.

Equally there has been a conscious desire to avoid giving star ratings. The classic 5* rating is a ridiculously unsubtle device for providing a quality rating (assuming equal banding, the difference between a 3* and 4* show could either be 1 or 39 percentage points; hardly an equal assessment of quality) and reading many many blogs, I am convinced that very few would hold true to Gaussian distribution patterns come the end of the year. Other factors do come into play (going to see shows you are more likely to like) but given a theatre review should help people make an informed decision on whether to see a show, it is hardly helpful if everything you see is a 5* classic.

Friends have called me a tough reviewer but that is because I see a lot of ‘good’ shows, and so a 3* rating for me would be indicative of a ‘good’ show. This year I have seen four shows I would definitely have given 5* to, and maybe another two that were on the cusp. However the primary reason this site doesn’t give star ratings is because people should take the time to read what it has taken the writer time to think about and write.

Ultimately its about personal choice. The web is brilliant because it doesn’t constrict you. There are no rules. This site has its own philosophy but it doesn’t seek to impose it on other people.

Yet there is also social convention. And here we get onto more unsure ground. Do we say that conventions do not apply on the web. This ventures into the land of the trolls. Most people feel that conventions, the unsaid rules that govern the functioning of society apply online. They might accept a certain loosening of the rules but we feel there are limits to this. Personal moral codes have no weight online but the majority of people would agree that issuing rape threats to female journalists for having the temerity to express an opinion is beyond the pale.

However these are the extremes. What about the everyday unwritten conventions of the blogging world. They may not matter to everyone, but break them and unleash the hellfire of Twitter upon you. And thanks to The Times, The Daily Mail and assorted publications, the journalist silly season has had the perfect content to bring this into the wider world in the form of the Barbican, the Benedict and the Bard. The preview is a theatrical convention that has held for years. You do not publish a review before press night because press night is the first night. That the media broke this is frankly ludicrous but the fall-out in the blogging community has been substantial and often quite illustrious.

The desire for the most clickbait-y post is understandable. But London theatre bloggers are a tight-knit community and breaking this code was never going to go down well. We are fully aware of the contempt and sneer that the likes of Dominic Cavendish and more ill-informed commentators hold us in. Lets not give them any more ammunition.

So the wonderful folks who have set up Theatre Bloggers (the soon-to-be-far-away Rebecca Felgate, the mysterious West End Wilma and doyenne of the South-East theatre scene, Sammi O’Neill) have come together to produce a set of blogging guidelines. These aren’t rules, they aren’t a charter, you won’t be excluded for not following every single one. Rather they are practical tips if you want your blog to have the veneer of professionalism (and if you don’t want that, then that’s ok too).

And just remember (jazz hands at the ready) – to paraphrase Matron ‘Mamma’ Morton – “when you’re good to theatre bloggers, theatre bloggers’ good to you”

Click here for the blogging guidelines.

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>>

Hamlet Hammersmith Riverside Studios photocredit Adam Trigg

Denmark’s a prison? Totes bruv’

Hamlet – Hammersmith Riverside Studios, until 22 June (Tickets)

The latest adaptation from Hiraeth Artistic Productions – following reworkings of classics like Titus Andronicus and Blood Wedding – has a somewhat inauspicious opening scene. We see Hamlet arriving to prison and for a while it seems we are set to watch his transfer in real time; paperwork is laboriously filled out, jewellery relinquished and, somewhat gratuitously, a stripsearch is implemented.

It is all very stripped back, natural, pretty much inaudible and what could be discerned wasn’t any Hamlet that this reviewer had ever heard; it was more like stumbling into a mumblecore adaptation of Scum than Shakespeare most famous tragedy. However from this worrisome start the first half cracks along under Zoe Ford’s pacey direction and carefully planned staging, making innovative use of a flexible set to allow prison’s claustrophobic atmosphere sufficient room to breathe.

Last year the CASA Latin American festival brought the Bolivian Hamlet de los Andes to the Barbican Pit. It was a production that sparked with wit and invention and, following Ostermeier’s version in 2012, demonstrated entirely new interpretations on Hamlet’s themes in a manner that breathed fresh life into the text.

Hamlet Boxing - Hammersmith Riverside Studios photocredit Adam TriggSo the fact that Hiraeth have cut 50 minutes from the running time shouldn’t necessarily be seen as a terrible idea. It can be seen as heresy to cut Shakespeare but one must remember that the text itself is just one element of a production; it must battle against the demands of director, designer and actor. It also recognises that a play should be accessible to its target audience and that if you are going to aim it at schools (which surely is the market for this version) then it is not unreasonable to think that those who are only there because it is a GCSE core subject may see being subjected to three hours of theatre as a cruel and unusual punishment.

The idea of setting it in a prison did make this reviewer wince. The concern about taking on such a high concept approach is that whether the play can be made to work without requiring serious stylistic contortions for plotting to make sense.

Part of the production does fall prey to this problem – for instance the Polonius/Ophelia/Hamlet portion could not be saved and character motivation was inevitability incoherent throughout. Do we really believe that Polonius, no matter how scheming, would ask his daughter to meet a dangerous criminal alone in a prison? Would Ophelia, seemingly a trained prison counsellor, be so affected by Hamlet’s actions that she would commit suicide? These are the kind of problems that must be countered by the director when developing such a strong framing device for the plot.

However other elements of the production work extremely well. There are some innovative directorial ideas – including a very good staging of the ghost appearing to Hamlet, which used light and dark to impressive effect in creating a startling appearance of the apparition. The fight scenes, including the boxing match that replaces the fencing in the final scene, were superbly choreographed and gave off the genuine impression that people were getting seriously hurt.

<<Continue to full review>>