Bold, bravura Bolivian brilliance

Hamlet de los Andes – Teatro de los Andes @ The Barbican Pitpart of the CASA Latin American Festival

If my knowledge of Bolivia is shockingly limited then it is fair to suggest that my knowledge of Bolivian theatre is equally lacking. However if Teatro de los Andes’ breath-taking reimagining of Shakespeare’s Hamlet is any measure of the quality of the Bolivian arts scene then it is an area that needs considerable investigation.

Fast-paced and full of vitality, Teatro de los Andes’ production finds new energy for a play whose radicalness has become blunted by its well-worn familiarity. In the fore-knowledge of its famous quotations and its prototype of Ophelia and Poloniusthe tragic hero, it is telling that it has taken a non-English language company to develop a radical approach that plays with both text and content. In recent years its closest parallel on the English stage has been Thomas Ostermeier’s German production but whereas Ostermeier’s production seems to revel in its willfully abstruse nature, the direction and purpose of Teatro de los Andes is clear throughout.

Hamlet of the Andes

There is nothing deliberately complicated about this production. It may be performed in Bolivian with just three actors and a musician. It may have taken a hatchet to the text, rewriting most of the dialogue and weaving altered quotations throughout, cut half the characters and reduced the length to under two hours.

However it also provides a chillingly clear indictment of the politico-military instability that ripped apart Bolivian society throughout the latter-half of the 20th century, which is told through the lens of the paranoia and madness that infects not just Hamlet but the whole household.

Writing in the Guardian, ahead of the publication of The Hamlet Doctrine, Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster argue that we have either forgotten or misunderstood the true nature of Hamlet and that productions too often focus on safe interpretations; they argue that we should look to the likes of Lacan and Nietzche who took analysis of Hamlet’s character beyond the basic Freudian Oedipal model, and offered far more radical implications for society.

This production demonstrates a fault of Critchley and Webster’s argument, and of many recent audience-friendly versions of the play, which is that it continually focuses Hamlet the play on Hamlet the man. They clearly understand the motivation that affects Hamlet as an individual but ignore the idea that Hamlet is a free agent, and that he operates in a political world full of other free agents; each with their own motivation that exist independently of Hamlet’s actions.


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The Rehabilitation of Bertolt Brecht

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui –Duchess Theatre, booking until 07 Dec 2013

Leaving aside Shakespeare, Chekhov and Ibsen, the popularity of playwrights tends to wax and wane on the London stage; the recent reappraisal of Rattigan as someone unfairly cast aside by the Angry Young Men of the 1950s and the continuing absence of Bernard Shaw are two of the more obvious examples of the way a writer’s fortune remains tied to the whims of producers.

Arturo Ui Poster

The UK has also notably never quite embraced the rich vein of talent that exists in European theatre: Racine is rarely seen; Moliere, a mainly absent figure; and modern continental playwrights virtually non-existent. The thrall of Anglo-American naturalism and the rawness of the grand narratives of O’Neill, Williams and Miller continues to be preferred to the rather more metaphysical questions posed by the likes of Ionesco and Artaud.

Within this structure Brecht cuts a solitary figure, and has increasingly become something of the forgotten man of British theatre. Whilst his position, alongside Stanislavski, as one the pre-eminent figures in the development of modern theatrical practice is assured, it was Stanislavskian concepts that became the dominant mode of theatre and film; championed by Stella Adler and embodied in the work of a young Marlon Brando.

In comparison Brecht’s influence has seemingly ebbed away to the point where a new production of a Brecht play in the West End is something of an event. One must acknowledge that there are resource considerations to this; large casts can be ruinously expensive but that reality is built on the premise that Brecht is deeply unfashionable and cannot be considered an audience draw.

The irony’s that Brecht is perhaps the most American-looking of all the European playwrights. Stanislavski had little desire to cast his eyes across the Atlantic but to Brecht the new world and its eager embrace of democratic and technological progress chime with ideas that were central to his own theatrical philosophy.

arturo_ui_063_Henry_Goodman__Arturo_Ui__and_Michael_Feast__Roma_._The_Resistible_Rise_of_Arturo_Ui._Photo_by_Manuel_Harlan._4ffd4cb1ddfbbAt its heart was the development of an art form that would become pre-eminent for the first five decades of the 20th century: cinema. Silent cinema was the great leveller; reliant on music, gesture and simplified dialogue so it could appeal across the immigrant communities of America, these early pictures represented Brechtian techniques transposed to a medium that could truly be embraced by a mass audience.

It was within the world of cinema that Brecht found a way of telling the story of Hitler. The development of genre pictures – particularly the early gangster movies, starring the likes of James Cagney and George Raft – gave Brecht a mechanism with which the rise of an international dictator could be challenged in a way that did not need threaten the authorities directly and would also appeal to a mass audience.

This is not to say that Arturo Ui is dumbed down; the reverse is in effect true, Brecht is raising the genre picture above its humble origins. He may have gained a reputation as a didactic playwright with a sledgehammer touch but this is to ignore the craft taken over the formal structure of the play and the sly literary references liberally sprinkled throughout the text.

Arturo Ui could be enjoyed for the wonderful pastiche of Mark Antony’s oration at Caesar’s funeral and the knowing nods to pretty much every tragedy in the Shakespearian canon but it does more than this – it recognises the freedom of the theatre, in opposition to the limitations of cinema, to challenge the audience by upturning the established conventions of an entire genre.

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…And happily ever after?

All’s Well That Ends Well – Royal Shakespeare Company, until 26 September 2013

One of the more curious of Shakespeare plays, All’s Well That Ends Well never seems to have sat comfortably with its audience. Even its title can be seen as one of Shakespeare’s playful jokes; riffing, as it does, on the fairy-tale narrative of ‘happily ever after’ despite those watching being left with serious question marks over the likelihood of the future joy to be shared between Helena and Bertram.

At its core All’s Well That Ends Well combines a number of fairy-tale tropes and applies them to the real-world. The healing of the king by someone of lower birth who is granted what their heart desires forms the play-logic that allows Helena, a ward of the Countess of Rossillion, to be granted the hand of Bertram, the Countess’ son.

In the world of fairy-tale this would be the ideal marriage and Bertram, the prince, would realise that he loved the woman of lower-birth all along. However by placing the plot in a world where people are not shaped by archetypes, weJoanna Horton as Helena in All's Well That Ends Well. Photo by Ellie Kurttz see Bertram as little more than an indulged trustifarian who runs at the first sight of emotional commitment, who is used to bending the world to his whims and who believes honour is for the battlefield not the bedroom.

This may explain modern concerns with the play; that the resourceful, intelligent and determined Helena would seemingly humiliate herself and traipse across Europe for a man who clearly does not lover her.

It is on this point that Nancy Meckler’s production of the Royal Shakespeare Company comes into its own and in doing so helps to rehabilitate a play that, for its problems, contains, in Parolles, a comic creation of rare intelligence alongside two strong female roles that are pillars of wisdom and virtue.

Meckler’s production updates the plot to the early twentieth century and through this framing device we see the character dynamics in a whole new light. The fairy-tale plotting remains but within a world that is realistic to us.

The background is Europe at war and in Helena we feel any one of the millions of women who stepped into the roles left by men. Helena’s curing of the King of France is a reminder of the importance of women to the war effort and how they carried out job that before the War they would never have been allowed to do.

Bertram’s treatment of Helena and his dismissive rejection of the King’s statement that ‘Tis only title thou disdain’st in her, the which / I can build up’ [II.iii] reflects the wider disintegrating status of hereditary gentry. Bertram has truly never considered Helena within the context of a potential wife despite living in close proximity at court.

There is also a significant amount of comedic irony to a modern audience in his plea that ‘In such a business give me leave to use / The help of mine own eyes’ [II.iii]; it is clear that once the shoe is on the other foot, the male ego struggles with the concept of entering what is effectively a shotgun wedding.

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McAvoy shines through a dank and dirty Macbeth

Macbeth – Trafalgar Studios, until 27 April 2013

Macbeth, by virtue of its perennial presence on the national curriculum and its pulpy plot that might just possibly hold the attention of recalcitrant teenagers who would rather be playing Call of Duty than sitting in a darkened theatre listening to verse-speaking for over two hours, is a Shakespeare play that never seems far from reach. It also has the added advantage of lead role that can be tailored to actors as apart in their careers as Kenneth Branagh and James McAvoy.

This sense of over-familiarity has harmed the play’s standing in the canon of Shakespearian tragedy, where it is rarely considered to be on the same level as Hamlet and King Lear. This distinction is hard to deny if the sole value for the tragedies is driven by the psychological complexity of its lead characters. However in Macbeth, which post-dates both plays, Shakespeare seem less interested in this then it exploring man as a primal force of nature. Where Hamlet ruminates on the moral legitMACBETH by Shakespeare,   Credit: Johan Persson - /imacy of his actions and the imperatives that drive him, Macbeth is driven by the emotion that eventually subsumes him – the tragedy lies precisely in this lack of reflection.

One of the joys of Macbeth for a director is that it provides an appealingly blank canvas; the landscape is sketched out as roughly as the country it is set in, and the setting is not tied to any significant fixed points in history. The result allows freedom for the director to overlay an idea onto the play without destroying the sheer enjoyment of Macbeth’s whirlwind central performance.

Jamie Lloyd’s production embraces the wild and primitive nature of the text – it is a Macbeth that lives and breathes the visceral and savage world in which it is set. There is no re-imagining Macbeth as a modern-day dictator or gangland crime boss; this is a Macbeth of history but a history that is rarely seen – when kings were a long way from assuming a divine right and living in a world of pomp and pageantry. In this Macbeth, you are king in so far as you assert a brutal right to supremacy. You are king of what you can hold and no further.

At its heart is Hobbes’ maxim that life without a settled community is a life of ‘continual fear, and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’.The set could be described as post-apocalyptic, post-climate change, post-fall of civilisation but it could easily reflect the nature of Britain prior to the establishment of a settled state. It is dank, dirty and decaying, and suits the purposes of those rule it. From the outset it is clear that these hard men living in hard times; when Duncan exclaims ‘what bloody man is that?’ [I.ii] it is not out of concern for his condition but out of wariness over his allegiance. Until Malcolm confirms that he is the Sargent he is welcomed only by the barrel of a rifle.

Similarly when Duncan reaches Glamis it seems more in keeping with a temporary base of a raging civil war; people sit on fold-up chairs and the ‘throne’, in a playful twist, is a toilet. The castle stands as a base of operations and nothing further. These men embody thec tribes forced north of the wall centuries earlier by the Romans than the contrasting civilisation of southern England. A point made by Lloyd as he bathes the set in an almost spiritual light during the play’s foray south of the border to hear Macduff and Malcolm debate the values of kingship.

This imagined world revolves around Spinoza’s belief that ‘peace is not the absence of war, but a virtue based on strength of character’. The play begins as war is concluded and the opportunity for peace to descend, yet it appears inevitable that it will only act as a temporary cessation of hostilities. It is so embedded that Macduff, who represents the forces of moral legitimacy, ultimately fails to demonstrate the virtues that can allow peace to flourish. The stark imagery of Macduff lifting Macbeth’s severed head above his own, face slowly covered by the blood of the defeated King, resembles the savagery of all that was fought against than the kingly virtues that Malcolm extols.

It is essential to understand that McAvoy’s Macbeth exists against this backdrop, as it is an explanation to the question of why Macbeth cannot turn away once he has achieved everything that was promised to him. Even before the Witches’ promise him the title of King it seems apparent that this Macbeth would not have been satisfied with his lot. Like those around him, he is a man of war and his achievements breed an emptiness rather than satisfaction.

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Say hello to Julia Caesar

Julius Caesar – Donmar Warehouse, until 09 February 2013 Book Tickets

The amount of column inches generated in discussion of Phylida Lloyd’s all-female production of Julius Caesar would be admirable if the content of the articles had done much more than highlight just how deeply conservative the British theatre scene really is and how it still runs far behind Europe when it comes to pushing new boundaries.

It is this reviewer’s opinion that such arguments are so lacking in depth that they brook little need for response. Indeed the best rejoinder is to point across London to the Apollo Theatre where Mark Rylance and Stephen Fry are currently commanding plenty of column inches of their own but mainly on account of their acting abilities rather than any discussion of gender.

The usual argument is that an all-male casts generates its legitimacy through ‘tradition’ but this is somewhat undermined by the plaudits given to the RSC’s superb all-Black production of Julius Caesar, or by idly speculating whether Rylance and Fry are performing under torchlight and with an unruly audience urinating in the stalls.

An all-female production is necessary due to the rather obvious point that Shakespeare, like the majority of pre-20th century playwrights, did not write many great parts for women and considering we have a much greater attachment to the classics than our European neighbours – should we really exclude so much fine actors from some of the greatest roles in the English language?

Indeed let us return to Shakespeare himself to labour the point yet further: ‘the play’s the thing, Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King’ Stretching this laborious point to breaking possibly, it reminds us that the purpose of the play is to elicit reaction, to be a delivery mechanism for showing to the audience something that it wasn’t expectingOn this score it is hard to deny that Phylida Lloyd has more than succeeded.

So the reasonable question to ask is whether the decision to use an all-female cast works. Broadly the answer is yes but not with unnecessary problems that seem to have resulted from an attempt to pre-empt questions over the casting decisions.

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Falstaff take centre stage as The Hollow Crown reveals its brutal truth

The Hollow Crown: Henry IV Part II – BBC 2

So Shakespeare continues on the BBC with Henry IV Part II and Falstaff discovering just how hollow the crown can be. It remains testament to Shakespeare’s talent that despite the clear danger of offending the monarchy he could write a play about kingship that would show it to be an undesirable burden that turns saviours into tyrants.

The old dying king, Henry IV, is laid bare before the audience; his noble persona stripped aware by a ravaging illness and worn down by the internecine rivalries of his nobles and the licentious behaviour of his heir. The regal nature of Jeremy Iron’s Henry has long since disappeared to be replaced by a solitary figure forced to send others to fight his wars and left to restlessly wander the palace at night exhorting that “uneasy lies the head that wears the crown” [III.i].

It is worth mentioning that Irons is magnificent as Henry IV – as it is a part often forgotten under the weight of the Hal/Falstaff relationship. Iron’s Henry captures the viewers’ attention with an exceptional understanding of verse speaking and bringing real intelligence to the dialogue. The great speech where he discovers Hal upon the throne and lashes out with “What! canst thou not forbear me half an hour? / Then get thee gone and dig my grave thyself” [IV.v] proves one of the real highlights of the series so far and brings just a glimpse of a potential King Lear – a  proposition that really does make the mouth water.

Tom Hiddleston’s Hal does not provide the tempting alternative that Shakespeare would later paint with far more grandeur in Henry V. As with last week, Hiddleston gives us a Hal that, for all his revelry and low-flung behaviour, is very much in control of his character. He may feel warmth to these people but he also is self-aware enough to retain a certain detachment as a king would his subjects. Hal is shown to be the kind of figure who would make a good king but possibly an even better tyrant.

Richard Eyre focusses on melancholy as the central theme of this production of Henry IV Part II. It is a melancholy centred around the relationships Falstaff has throughout the play which draw out his own tragic self-awareness that so often is hidden behind bluster. Simon Russell Beale gives us a Falstaff that continues to scheme but who is fatally unable to change his character and for whom the dead-hand of time continues to advance.

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Much more on BBC’s Shakespeare Unlocked here