Monday, January 27, 2014

Confessions of a Bardoholic

One of the most enjoyable and fulfilling things I have done recently is getting into Shakespeare performances. Having been away from the UK for a while, adjusting to Cameron's Britain has been somewhat dispiriting, with its dumbed down media and dismal popular culture. Rather than getting gloomy about things, however, I resolved to concentrate on these islands' strengths - fine cities, beautiful countryside, nice beer, art, theatre and music. As part of this survival programme, I embarked on seeing all of Shakespeare's plays live. Very quickly - from the opening words of Romeo and Juliet in fact - I became a hopeless addict, and I now get twitchy if I haven't witnessed one of the Bard's plays for more than a couple of weeks. Here's a catch up on what I have seen so far . . . Actually it's a catalogue of my descent into Bardoholicism.

This week I managed to see not one, but two of Will's plays. Yesterday it was Macbeth, by JKL Drama, at Doncaster. For those who don't know the city, Donnie is a fine place with a thriving, bustly centre and a spanking new arts hub, the Cast Theatre, which has an airy secondary area for productions such as this. From the scary witches onwards, this was a storming, epic performance, with some fine acting, particularly by Ryan Cerenko as Macbeth and Jon Wright as the bloodied Banquo. Rachel Ryan did well in the daunting role of Lady Macbeth, and David Chase gave a engaging, complex, performance as Malcolm. Macbeth is a serious text, dealing with dark themes that never go away - ambition, betrayal, manipulation, regret, paranoia . . . a therapist's dream. Indeed Sigmund Freud wrote at length about it. Macbeth - a comedy it ain't.

Earlier in the week, I saw something completely different - As You Like It, by Green Girl Productions at the Baron's Court Theatre, London. Set in post war France (but really down in the cellar of a busy pub), this was a fresh, energetic performance by some young fine actors. The play itself is interesting and engaging, with nice gender-bending sketches and some brilliant passages. The soliloquy beginning "All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players" is jaw droppingly good, and it was faithfully delivered by the genial actor/ director Mackenzie Thorpe. Actually, I like the passage so much that here it is in full . . . .

All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms.
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress' eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon's mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper'd pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

I like that description of the lover, "sighing like a furnace, with a woeful ballad made to his mistress' eyebrow". Indeed, it's all good stuff. Anyway, back to the performance, which was marked by inventive direction and engaging acting by said McKenzie Thorpe. The standouts in the play, however, were all women (not really fair on the men this, as they had all the best lines). Most impressive of all was Nicola Foxfield as Rosalind, whose transition from fun loving beauty to knowing laddishness was a joy to behold. Also terrific was her female co-conspirator, Celia (Jen Cooper). Emma Johnstone almost stole the show with her sly portrayal of the dim, lovestruck Phoebe. Although I'm less enthusiastic about the Bard's comedies than his tragedies or histories, this is a masterpiece of light humour and humane wisdom. Indeed, it's my favourite comedy . . . Hang on, though Merry Wives was good too . . .

Romeo and Juliet, by Icarus Theatre, at the Grantham Arts Centre, 23rd May 2013 was the event that got me addicted to Will's plays. Clashing swords, a foxy female Tybalt (Gabrielle Dempsey), love, politics, death . . We had front row seats to a sensurround epic. Strangely, perhaps, with all this political turmoil and gangland strife going on, the tragic focus of the whole piece was Nurse (Gemma Barrett), who inadvertently caused the whole catastrophe. I would love . . . love . . to see this production again. However, that's the inbuilt bittersweet nature of stagecraft - performances like these are here today, gone tomorrow, and you catch them while you can. The players are now dispersed, and the particular magic of that evening can never be repeated. I was one of the lucky ones.

The Merry Wives of Windsor by Creative Cow, at the Key Theatre, Peterborough 2nd October 2013 was an unexpected delight. The text is fun enough, and the performances were breezy, cheeky and a joy to witness. Katherine Senior as Mistress Page was the standout performance, but all were up for fun - and fun we had. You had to be there, and I'm very glad I was. Bravo Creative Cow!

Love's Labour's Lost at the Old Red Lion, Islington, by Grassroots Shakespeare, 03 July 2013,  was entertaining enough in the little theatrical space upstairs at the pub. While the performance was shamelessly two dimensional in parts, everyone there had fun, me included. The play - completely written in verse - is one of Will's more wordy and flowery texts, and it is not a favourite of mine (at the moment). I suspect, however, that there is a production out there that may cause me to reconsider. LLL and me is unfinished business . . .

Being invited to blog Titus Andronicus at the Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford 27th June 2013 in the summer was one of my events of last year. Sharp, powerful and disturbing, it was a  performance I will never forget. Once dismissed as an amateurish early attempt at bloody tragedy, many - me included - now rate this as one of Shakespeare's greatest works. Indeed, in the RSC's recent poll of the Bard's most admired plays, Titus came an astonishing fifth - quite a rehabilitation! Katy Stephens as Tamora remains one of the most authoritative, sexy, performances I have ever seen. Now, if I could only press a button and relive that wonderful evening . .

The Merchant of Venice by Mask Theatre in Peterborough's Central Park 22nd July 2013, made for a blissful Summer evening in a pleasant Victorian park. The players were in spirited form with some superb standout performances, notably Ashlea Wales as the clever Portia. This play itself made a big impression on me. Shakespeare's analysis of antisemitism, marginalisation and the inconsistent application of law gives disturbing insight into some obvious current controversies. A work of real genius, the Merchant of Venice is one of my favourite Shakespeare plays.

Richard III at the Nottingham Playhouse was a performance that I will always remember. The play itself is clever, dark,  funny, weaving together themes of ambition, betrayal, autocracy. The players were impressive, with Ian Bartholomew giving an intriguing and disturbing portrayal of the rising dictator - disturbing because by charming you onto his side, he incriminated you in every dastardly outrage. Clapping and whooping at the end, we were shamed in our complicity. That said, this performance was so good I went to see it again the following week. Again, I applauded Richard's every dark manoeuvre. Departing from the theatre for the second time, it struck me that Richard III was perhaps the blueprint for Nabokov's Humbert Humbert.

Richard II by the RSC at the Barbican Theatre, London was a gold plated triumph - as you would expect, with David Tennant in the role. On the night, I was up on a scarily high balcony, but could see and hear everything perfectly. What a show. The text itself is another cutting thesis on leadership, deconstructing the nature of royalty and the power dynamics around it. David Tennant's performance was, of course, sizzling.

King Lear at the Globe Theatre, London was my first trip to Sam Wanamaker's monumental achievement. I bought a Gentleman's seat above the side of the stage for fifteen quid, which was comfortable, and the view and acoustics were fine. Lear is one of Shakespeare's most admired plays, and this performance highlighted all the the reasons why that is so. An honest, unflinching exploration of aging and the loss of power (both political and personal), King Lear is a masterpiece, revealing the fragility of even the proudest, most successful, man. Joseph Marcell put in a wonderful performance of incomprehending decline. From the entrance of the actors, the surroundings and audience were integral to the performance. In no other setting have I come across this kind of intense symbiotic atmosphere. The result? I am now a proud Friend of the Globe Theatre, and look forward to seeing six more plays there this Summer.

Othello by Icarus Theatre at Peterborough's Key Theatre was brave and unusual. The play is another analysis of ethnic dynamics, with the Moor Othello as the heroic, but ultimately tragic, focus. As with the Merchant of Venice, there is much to be learnt here about the interplay between identity, stereotyping and ethnicity. For weeks, I was looking forward to this performance, as it was by the same Icarus Theatre group who brought Romeo and Juliet to Grantham. Their rendition of Othello was highly original - daring even - integrating the text with the playing of musical instruments by the actors. (Talk about making a difficult task even more difficult!) For me, however, the idea simply didn't work - and although the acting was good, as was the musicianship - the combination of the Bard with violins for two and a half hours left me wishing the cast had left their fiddles at home.

As my addiction has intensified, my passion for all things Shakespeare has led me to fill play free weeks through other means. The broadcasting of live performances from the Globe and RSC to cinemas around the country has been timely, and gave me the opportunity to see the Globe's Henry V, starring Jamie Parker. This is Shakespeare at his most dynamic and effervescent, hurling off sparks of insight into leadership and charisma. From the moment Parker strode cockily on stage, one was in no doubt that here was a leader of men. I also saw the live broadcasting of RSC's Richard II, starring David Tennant, with that stellar cast. This beaming live events into cinemas is a wonderful thing.

What else? I went to see Northern Ballet's Midsummer Night's Dream at the Nottingham Theatre Royal. It was breathtaking, with superhuman performances by all involved. Not exactly Shakespeare live, but thrilling all the same.

I also resorted to DVDs and the Internet, watching things like the charming Shakespeare in Love. I smiled and chuckled throughout. The screenplay was co-written by Tom Stoppard, assuring depth in the script - and there are many good jokes in there. Having just seen the bloody Titus Andronicus, I liked the nasty kid citing this as his favourite play. I also watched the Merchant of Venice, starring Al Pacino, as a twitchy, wired Shylock. The production was very enjoyable in a Serpico kind of way - must watch it again soon.

I have seen two King Lears through electronic media. The first was the legendary 1974 Central Park, New York performance with James Earl Jones. You can see this in full on You Tube. The second was played by Ian McKellan in 2008. Actually, of all three Lears I have seen so far (only one of them live), the latter has been my favourite. Before seeing McKellan is this role, I never really understood all the fuss about him. This performance left me a fan.

Thanks to Netflix I was able to see Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet. Good performances all round, with Michael York great as Tybalt. Definitely worth watching.

The BBC productions of Will's plays are a treasure chest for any addict. Rather than buy them all at once, however, I have been disciplining myself and ordering one at a time - it's a thrill when the DVD drops through the letter box. One of these was the Beeb's version of  Coriolanus, with Alan Howard in the role. I liked the play, which again is a biting analysis of leadership, but I didn't get on with the lead actor. In contrast, the BBC's Titus Andronicus was magnificent. Trevor Peacock - famous nowadays as the incoherent Jim Trott in the Vicar of Dibley - was utterly convincing as Titus, and the play . . . well if you haven't seen Titus, then buy the DVD, buckle yourself in, and prepare to be astonished.

I also watched the BBC's Comedy of Errors, starring a knowing Michael Kitchen and a rather good Roger Daltrey. The script is a bit silly, and the production of this play exacerbated this. I also saw the BBC version of my least favourite Shakespeare play Love's Labour's Lost. As I said before, however, I'm sure there is a production out there that will change my views on it.

Of course, in my earlier years, I saw some of the Bard's plays live, but they don't really count, as I wasn't an addict then. For the record, I saw a memorable version of Julius Caesar at Manchester Uni with an alpha male lead, who clapped himself loudly at the end; and  I saw the Tempest, memorable for a punk, smack addict Caliban. I'm sure there were others, but, hey, the drink . . .

So there we are. My progress report at the end of January 2014. Next week I'm off to see Hamlet at the Baron's Court Theatre, and I hope - against all odds - to win a ticket for the Donmar Theatre's Coriolanus. What is certain is that I am loving exploring the plays of this remarkable man.

My name is Mark, and I am a Bardoholic.