“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.

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Finding magic in The Tempest

The Tempest – Thick as Thieves @ Hope Theatre, until 18 July 2015 (tickets)

There are those who feel that criticising Shakespeare is the theatrical equivalent of apostasy, and to accept just one flaw is to admit the existence of a crack that could fatally undermine his genius. Yet while zealots shout heresy, it cannot be denied that Shakespeare wrote a lot of plays and that not all are masterpieces. Each century has its favourites but time seems to have led to the The tempest hope theatre 2emergence of an A-list and B-list; in the modern age whither have gone Pericles, King John or Henry VI Parts I, II and III?

But there are problems even among his more popular outings; I would argue that Henry V is a second-rate play enlivened only by Shakespeare’s ability for heart-swelling, grandiose speeches (indeed it is hard to even write the sentence without wanting to refer to how he can ‘stiffen the sinews [and] summon up the blood’). Equally if I could go through life without experiencing the entire post-interval acts from Romeo & Juliet then I would be all the happier for it.

Yet The Tempest has always proved a more challenging option. It is held up as the scholarly choice for greatest Shakespeare play. The temptation
for academic insight is too much to bear. It is his last solo play, his farewell to the stage. Prospero can easily be seen as Shakespeare writing himself into the story. As he waves goodbye to the mysterious magical island, his powers fading, how can it not be seen in this light?

This dry academic interest inevitably strips much of the fun out of the play. The Tempest has magic and monsters, comedy and romance. It starts with a shipwreck and teeters towards tragedy. At the very least it should be entertaining. However too many productions get wrapped up in Prospero and it becomes little more than an opportunity for an actor to wrestle with Shakespeare’s last great part, and get under the skin of the man himself (and if that is the aim then I recommend any actor look no further than the challenge of Edward Bond’s Bingo if they want to take on Shakespeare directly).

Cheek By Jowl’s Russian company produced a superb version in 2011, and they did so through an inventiveness and an absurd but near malicious humour that sits easily with Prospero’s casual cruelty towards Caliban and recognition of Ariel being not far removed from the trickster sprite of Robin Goodfellow. If this production falls short in comparison it is because Cheek By Jowl have spent 20 years building a reputation worthy of generating international acclaim. However Thick of Thieves can be applauded for approaching a challenging play with spirited energy and an appealing ingenuity that makes best use of the limited resources offered by a small black-box space. They have set out to entertain rather than inform, and if I left having learnt little I didn’t already know then I must also admit to leaving having not enjoyed Shakespeare this much for quite some time.

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Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves

The Merchant of Venice – Almeida Theatre, until 14 February 2015

There are few directors who have the ability to divide audiences as much as Rupert Goold. It has become standard for his reinterpretations to brim with ideas and display an exuberance that can irkmov-364-merry-holden-emily-plumtree-and-rebecca-brewer-and-susannah-fielding-by-ellie-kurttztraditionalists as much as they excite those who believe a play to be a living text.

His production of The Merchant of Venice, reaching the Almeida after a season in Stratford, does more than most to alienate, and even his most fervent supporters reach the interval trying to grasp at the point of transferring the play from renaissance Venice to 20th century Las Vegas.

We must consider the play one of Shakespeare’s most problematic. Any director must think through how it can be staged effectively and it is a cop-out to provide a traditional setting in order to avoid the context that the modern world brings to how we must approach Shylock and his humiliation. It is clear what may have been acceptable for Elizabethan audiences will not play as well to the modern theatre goer.

MOV 045 - Rebecca Brewer and Susannah Fielding by Ellie Kurttz for webAs much as Shakespearian scholars can claim there is more to the interpretation of Venetian Jewry than may be initially apparent, it is hard to avoid the grubbiness with which he portrays Shylock debasement and Jessica’s elopement with Lorenzo. As much as we can argue that art should live in a vacuum it is impossible to watch the play without holding an awareness of what has happened in the 20thcentury.

It is also a structurally difficult play that ends entirely peculiarly. It is, technically, a comedy but it fails to fulfil many of the rules that we might associate with Elizabethan comedies. It doesn’t end in a wedding and rather than finishing with the duke bringing order to the chaos, it ends with Gratiano, a lower character, making a rather inelegant ribald remark about his betrothed.

Well Goold makes the decision to turn the play on its head, and leaves us with an ending so bleak, so suggestive of storm clouds gathering, that if not quite being equal to the great tragedies it is at least worthy of an HBO series.

As the final curtain descends we are left with three couples who, in destroying Shylock, have destroyed themselves. The audience are left with Bassanio’s question to Shylock, ‘Do all men kill the things they do not love?’ [IV.i] to mull over. In their single-minded pursuit of what they thought they desired they have ultimately left themselves a future built on lies and deceit. The warning on Portia’s caskets that ‘who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves‘ returns to us with a startling relevance.

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Revisiting…King Charles III

King Charles III – Wyndham’s Theatre, booking until 31 January 2015 (tickets)

Following on from my post revisiting The Scottsboro Boys, Civilian Theatre continues his trip down memory lane (via helpful West End transfers that kind-of legitimises the whole exercise and makes it look rather less like a pointless and desperate act of content generation) by going back to Mike Bartlett’s Shakespeare-inspired take on what might happen when our future monarch finally faces his destiny…  

(This review is for a production that took place at the Almeida Theatre in May 2014)


Civilian Theatre was one of many celebrating when Rupert Goold snagged the job of Artistic Director at the Almeida and given the unenviable task of continuing the success of Michael Attenborough’s 11-year tenure. Based on his opening salvo; the intentionally eye-catching American Psycho: The Musical before bringing in his former company with the Headlong-produced 1984, it appears Goold has a canny sense of how to blur the KING CHARLES III by Bartlett,        , Writer - Mike Bartlett, Director -  Rupert Goold, Design - Tom Scutt, Composor - Jocelyn Pook, Lighting - Jon Clark, Almeida Theatre, London, UK, 2014, Credit: Johan Persson - www.perssonphotography.comboundaries between popular and elitist theatre.

Appropriately enough the issue of succession is at the heart of the first play Goold has personally directed at the venue; Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III. Another well-judged choice, Bartlett’s play cannot fail to appeal to all audiences. Much has been made of the Shakespearian overtones but the true success of the play is that it is a hugely enjoyable piece of, what Bartlett calls, ‘future history’, which also raises questions that Britain as a country will need to confront in time.

Like Jerusalem this is proper state of the nation theatre and it is heartening to see a playwright unapologetically examine ‘big issues’ on such a grand scale. Bartlett demonstrates that verse has its place in modern drama and that audiences needn’t be turned off by the use of heightened language. The use of iambic pentameter isn’t purely to demonstrate Bartlett’s skill as a poet but because he is dealing with characters that are simultaneously entirely real and, to the majority of us, entirely unknowable.

The greatest PR trick that royalty has ever pulled off was to create this public image and then to strenuously avoid revealing their true face. Our current Queen has studiously kept to this template and it is notable that it is only when the mask slips that the public begins to question their value. As we enter a new era, the age of Will and Kate and of smartphones and public accessibility, this model is in a state of flux and Bartlett has pitched Charles’ succession as the moment that the new and old world will collide.

The use of verse is a way into this private world. How can prose be placed into the mouths of people who are so recognisable but so unknown? We cannot know how they really speak behind closed doors and so creating a state of unreality through artifice is a way to reach some kind of truth. It also allows Bartlett pre-existing conventions to slip seamlessly between conversation and monologue. We are permitted into an inner-realm, not just the closed world of the monarchy but the private consciousness of its key figures.

King-Charles-III-Almeida-LondonThe allusions come thick and fast and for those who know Shakespeare there is much fun to be had in spotting the references. However Bartlett ensures that this is not to the detriment of those who haven’t been schooled in all the History plays and a fair portion of the tragedies. The characters he draws are fascinating in their own right and capture the essence of who they are. It is perhaps Prince Harry who is closest to caricature but how could one resist when he is built to be modelled on the classic arc of Hal in Henry IV Part I and II.

His entrance to the nightclub and his night of revelry is a clear echo of The Boars-Head Tavern in Eastcheap and whilst Jess is a far cry from Falstaff, one senses that it is only a matter of time before there will be a rejection. In a play of many highlights, it is Harry accepting the duty that has been placed upon him and thus leading to the final abandonment of Jess that is the true tragedy of the play. Jess is the one innocent, drawn unwillingly into Harry’s world and the one target that press can attack. It is a superb and understated performance by Tafline Steen; she gives Jess a stoic dignity in her humiliation and the image of her standing alone before the coronation tears at the heart. It is a brutal reminder, if any was needed, that above all this is a club whose very survival depends on its exclusivity.

The play is a tragicomedy, with a comedic start slowly giving way to the grand tragedy as the crisis develops. Like so many tragedies it is one action that sets the direction on its course and it inexorably rolls towards its conclusion due to man’s frailty. It starts with a funeral, amidst a wonderfully staged requiem scene, and inevitably ends with a coronation. It also features the great dramatic device of signing a document, and it is here that for all the idiocy of Charles we find sympathy for him; he does not fall as far as Lear but the moment that he realises that he must sign is reminiscent of Lear (‘reason not the need’) pleading Goneril and Regan for his knightly retinue.

We know Lear has brought himself to the pass but we sympathise because of, rather than despite, his foolishness. It is the same with Charles that with one rash act, to challenge Parliament, he has like Lear, to split his Kingdom, condemned himself with an unworldly pride and a fatal inability to distinguish between power and authority.

Misunderstanding of royal power leading to constitutional crisis and abdication cannot help but remind of Richard II. However there is less to be drawn into this than in other Shakesperian characters. Tim Pigott-Smith’s Charles may share Richard’s naivety but he does not share his cruelty. There is no moment in the play that Charles echoes Richard’s splendidly cold moment when, on hearing the illness of John of Gaunt, he states ‘pray God we may make haste, and come too late!’, instead he is more a kindred spirit with Shakespeare’s less-performed tragic heroes, Coriolanus and Timon of Athens.

The tragedy of Charles is his unwavering sense of moral principle. He does not recognise flexibility to be an option and even making a gesture towards reconciliation cannot be achieved. Like Coriolanus and Timon he see himself as a good man in a bad world, and that if he does not have his virtue then he will have nothing of himself. People desperately present solutions that require compromise on all sides but they are rejected because there is principle at stake. It is foolish but it is not evil. In many way Pigott-Smith presents a very warm, and almost lovable, Charles and the frustration one feels with him is not with his cause but with his approach to the solution.

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The making of a king

Richard III – Trafalgar Studios (01 July – 27 September 2014)

Richard III, as proved by his miraculous reappearance in a car park in Leicester, is someone who will not stay dead. In the last three years we had already seen three major productions, including turns from the cream of both stage and screen; Mark Rylance and Kevin Spacey. It is a brave performer who follows in those footsteps and even braver one who takes it despite minimal recent stage experience and a screen persona that has been fine-tuned to be the polar opposite of the larger-than-life, charismatic king.

However Jamie Lloyd has been using the opportunity presented by Trafalgar Transformed to revitalise the space with high octane productions cast with performers that have been carefully chosen to appeal to a younger Martin Freeman as Richard IIIdemographic without destroying the vitality of Shakespeare’s language.

Richard III, and last year’s superb Macbeth with James McAvoy, blurs the lines between cinematic and theatrical expectations. It is reasonable to quibble with the handling of the language but it is wrong to deny they contain a thrilling visceral energy that may counter the preconceived notions of those whose only experience of theatre is via how drama is taught in schools.

There has been criticism in how Martin Freeman approached the text and it is true the verse of the famous opening monologue is all but destroyed through his delivery. However this is less marked in the rest of the play and often the iambic meter is fluid and complete. He may not have the rounded tones of a natural stage actor but this may be a combination of lack of experience and also the directorial decisions underpinning the play.

Richard III JLC PROD-1522The decision to tackle ‘Now is the winter of our discontent…’ in that way would not have been taken lightly and, on balance, the production gets away with it because it is being delivered as an address to the nation. If we accept the opening premise that changes it from a traditional monologue to a public speech then it is logically justifiable to deliver it in the clipped rhetorical tones of a politician rather than in the fluid verse of someone expressing their inner-thoughts.

Whilst changing the tone of one of Shakespeare’s greatest speeches is controversial, it does allow a wonderful moment that would not otherwise be delivered. To use the language of cinema there is a brilliant smash-cut at ‘But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks’; Freeman’s Richard switches instantly from the exterior to the interior, from the public to the private. We see clearly the calculating nature of his public persona and the private contempt of others.

For an audience less literate in the convoluted back story of the play it also makes it easier to recognise the inappropriateness of the good humour he shows to Clarence as he is being sent to the tower. We have already been shown the duplicity of Richard and his ability to – use the jargon of modern politics in which it is set – ‘work the room’. Here with Clarence we witness this as a fine art; understanding, consoling and, naturally, mastering the double-speak that contains no lies – ‘well, your imprisonment shall not be long’.

If this Richard has one overriding trait it is that of the small-man syndrome writ on a national scale. This is most clearly witnessed in the wooing of Lady Anne; a scene that demonstrates both the driving force of this Richard, along with a sense of what makes the production ultimately problematic.

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