Friday, February 28, 2014

The Winter's Tale by William Shakespeare, The Bridge Theatre Training Company, The Cockpit

The Winter's Tale is one of Shakespeare's oddest plays. Written towards the end of his career - most experts put it around 1610 - it is not easily characterised, weaving elements of tragedy, comedy and romance. It's all a bit mashed up. As many of Shakespeare's plays were, this is based upon a popular earlier text - in this case Robert Greene's pastoral romance Pandosto, published in 1588. The play's title, The Winter's Tale, refers not to a seasonal setting, but to the fact that in the colder months people used to amuse themselves through telling long and fanciful tales. This is indeed a fanciful story.

The setting is Sicily, where King Leontes is entertaining his old boyhood friend King Polixenes of Bohemia. The two have been partying hard for months, and Polixenes reluctantly decides it is time to head back to resume his regal responsibilities. Leontes wants more of his friend's company, however, and tasks his pregnant queen, Hermione, with getting him to change his mind. After three attempts, using all her considerable charms, she finally manages this. Her flirtatious entreaties to persuade the Bohemian king to stay, however, convince her husband, Leontes, that they have been having an affair - and that the child she is carrying is illegitimate.

The Sicilian King is driven mad by these suspicions, and plots to murder Polixenes, who escapes back to Bohemia. Poor Queen Hermione meanwhile is put on trial for adultery and high treason. The Queen's troubles escalate as her new baby girl is sent to be exiled and abandoned. Meanwhile a mission is sent to the oracle at Delfos to seek a decree on Hermione's guilt or innocence. As the trial is in full flow, the message comes back. The oracle finds that she and Polixenes are innocent; and decrees that Leontes will not have an heir until his abandoned daughter is found. Leontes stubbornly ignores this judgement, and pursues with the prosecution of his wife. The oracle's prophesy is tragically realised when the royal couple's young son, Prince Mamillius dies due to the stresses of his mother's trial. Overcome with grief, Hermione collapses and is delivered away by her friend Pauline - who later announces her death.

All fairly grim thus far.

As this has been going on, the baby girl at the centre of the scandal has been transported to Bohemia by Paulina's husband, Antigonus. He leaves the child, with a bag of gold, and accoutrements of her royal birth. A bear then discovers Antigonus, and chases and kills him  (Shakespeare's original directions: "Exit, pursued by a bear.") The baby remains unscathed however; and she is discovered by a shepherdess, who adopts her and calls her Perdita.

Sixteen years pass, and Perdita is a beautuful maiden. By chance she has met Florizel, who happens to be the son of Bohemian King Polixenes. The couple fall in love, and plan to marry at the annual sheep shearing fair. The King gets wind of this, and along with his courtier Camillo, he goes disguised to the fair. The rural wedding takes place, and Polixenes angrily reveals himself. However, with the help of the slippery rogue Autolycus, the couple manage to flee to Sicliy. The shepherd and his son follow on.

There, the fugitive couple approach old King Leontes, claiming to be on a diplomatic mission. However, with the arrival of Polixenes and Camillo, their cover is blown. Things look bad for the young lovers, until the shepherd begins to relate the tale of how he found the baby. Perdita's royal lineage is affirmed, and reconciliation and celebration follow.

The reunited group then visit Paulina's house to view a new statue of the late, wronged, Queen Hermione. Leontes is moved by the life like statue, noting how it looks older than how he remembered her. Unexpectedly, the statue comes to life, and the revitalised Queen is reconciled with her husband. All's well that ends well.

Bringing such an unlikely plot to life was the daunting job of the young, talented, Bridge Theatre Training Company. Under the highly creative direction of Mark Akrill, the cast produced an energetic, indeed effusive, performance, with lots of music and dirty dancing. This was a decidedly hot Winter's Tale, with the contrast between nominal season and steamy plot marked by Hawaiian shirts and tropical garlands.

I loved some things about this show. One was the wending of a video camera through the cast to the changing rooms, where act four of the play began. Clever and effective. Overall, however, it was the acting that impressed. The performance I saw was actually the cast's first dress rehearsal, but the show was performed with great confidence and flair - it was like they had been playing this for weeks. All members of the large cast were good, but four performances in particular caught my eye. Sean Scannell's freestyle portrayal of the roguish, duplicitous Autolycus was a delight - with sly eye contact and mischief making with the audience. Perfectly pitched. Louise Goodfield was also excellent as Hermione, from her flirtatious opening scenes to her desperate downfall. Giulia D'Amanzo was engaging and entertaining as the Shepherd. The standout performance for me, however, was that of Paulina. Jessica Brien played this part with great conviction and dignity, adding a disciplined passion to the unraveling events. As I walked out, I heard another member of the audience saying, "Paulina was very good". Very good indeed. Indeed, it all was.

On the whole, then, this was a confident, highly creative interpretation of one of Shakespeare's odder - most ill-fitting - plays. This week's series of shows at the Cockpit is great advertisement for the The Bridge Theatre Training Company, and I look forward to seeing their future productions. Congratulations to all involved.

Hey, I managed to get through the whole review without mentioning Hermione's parallels with Anne Boleyn, or the passage about "dildos". I said this was an odd, mixed up play. 

Monday, February 24, 2014

Pericles, by William Shakespeare and George Wilkins, Ketterer's Men, Stratford upon Avon

Shakespeare's play, Pericles, has had something of a bad rep over the years, with some early scholars dismissing the work from the canon altogether; while others have maintained that the text is the cobbling together of half remembered lines by former cast members. Some have complained about the quality of the writing, usually blaming Shakespeare's involvement with notorious bad boy George Wilkins - the Charles Bukowski of his day. Publican, brothel keeper, scribbler, Wilkins was certainly the Bard's most exotic collaborator.

Some critics, however, have admired the play. Always the contrarian, TS Eliot really rated it, referring to it as a "very great play". A very great play/ or patchy B movie co-written with a pimp . . . Pericles, has divided critics in much the same way as my favourite blood fest, Titus Andronicus. Both have had their authorship questioned, and both have suffered aspersions about quality. Perhaps because of the current hunger for ultra-violence, Titus has experienced a surge in popularity in recent years, with a triumphant recent rendition by the RSC, directed by Michael Fentiman; and a forthcoming production of the play at the Globe in April.

Pericles, meanwhile, remains somewhat marginalised. This is a pity, as it is, as Eliot would have it, "a very great play", exploring the trafficking and sexual exploitation of women; and the nature of belonging. It is significant that the Bard wrote the play with a sex industry insider. Shakespeare was comfortable rubbing shoulders with members of the underworld, and was open minded enough to recognise talent among their ranks. His collaboration with as dark character as George Wilkins thus says a lot about Shakespeare. It also says a great deal about Wilkins, and his writing abilities. The result is an illuminating examination of the human psyche - and is among Shakespeare's best plays.

Pericles is an epic sea-faring saga, which addresses controversial currents and themes, such as incest, family breakup, human trafficking and prostitution. The narrative centres on our eponymous hero, who arrives in Antioch to try for the hand of the King's daughter. Unbeknown to Pericles, the King has been having a monstrous incestuous relationship with her. Wishing to keep his familial sex slave to himself, Antiochus presents all suitors with a challenge - to solve a riddle about her, or to face death. Brave, clever, Pericles takes on the challenge, and quickly sees all the evidence pointing to an incestuous relationship. The King demands an answer. Pericles responds reluctantly, but correctly. Antiochus is shaken at being outed like this, but pretends that the answer is incorrect. However, he feigns magnanimity and gives Pericles the opportunity to try again in a month. In reality he makes plans to kill him.

Pericles' flight from this peril sets in motion the dynamic, sea faring narrative of the play. Through his travels, Pericles wins the hand of beautiful Princess Thaisa, who bears him a child during a violent storm at sea, and promptly expires. Her body is committed to the briny deep; however, she is later washed up at Ephesus, and revived. Thinking she has lost both her husband and daughter, Thaisa enters the Temple of Diana (or Artemis, as she was known to the Greeks) to take up a life of celibacy and devotion.

Meanwhile, Pericles and his new baby daughter, Marina, survive the storm. To keep her from danger, Pericles entrusts the infant into the care of a royal couple. As Marina grows up, however, her beauty outshines that of the couple's own daughter, and they thus arrange for her to be killed. Before this can happen, however, she is kidnapped, and trafficked into a brothel in Mitylene on the island of Lesbos. There she is visited by a number of horny punters, but manages to dissuade them with appeals to their better nature. Eventually, the brothel management give up on her, and she is placed in a more respectable profession - needlework.

Pericles arrives at Mitylene, consumed by despair. The locals don't know what to do with their despondent visitor, so call on the virtuous Marina to cheer him up. Thus follows an emotionally charged reuniting of father and daughter, after which the couple travel to Ephesus to thank the goddess Diana for their good fortune. As Pericles is praying in the temple, his wife, Thaisa, recognises his voice, and collapses with shock. She is revived, and the family are reunited. We are left with the reflective, affirming words of the chorus.

This production was by Ketterer's Men, a group formed to mark the the life of Lizz Ketterer, a much loved scholar at the Shakespeare Institute. This is their third production, after Hamlet and Love's Labours Lost, and was again performed in Stratford. Founded in 1951, the Institute is part of the University of Birmingham, and is the focus for its Shakespeare research and teaching. This production thus included some postgraduate students and researchers. There was nothing amateurish about this performance, however. Indeed, it was one of the finest renditions of Shakespeare I have seen yet.

Director Will Sharp and Technical Director David Graybill highlight the sea and its role in Pericles' transformative journey; and entering the great hall was like finding oneself aboard an ancient ship. We took our seats while the downcast crew sat silently, as the deep sea splashed and crashed around them. A giant sheet at one end was used throughout as a sail; and there were moments, with the sail billowing and sea gulls calling, when we were indeed all at sea.

The acting was very good. Charlie Morton gave a refreshingly unflashy portrayal of heroism, playing Pericles with great intensity and sincerity. He really carried the lead role, highlighting the virtue, fragility and devotion of the eponymous prince. In a memorable performance, Jose A. Perez Diez played King Simonides with flair, authority and mischief. Jenny Bulcraig brought Thaisa to life in a subtle, complex way. I particularly liked how she conveyed confusion and resolve after her recovery at Ephesus. Peter Malin as the central narrator, Gower, book in hand, played a third party getting sucked into the narrative, almost to the point of despair. This was very well done, and added momentum to narrative and performance. I particularly liked David Waterman's performance as the fisherman, evoking camaraderie in unforgiving circumstances. Laura Young as Marina was superb throughout, and her playing of the reunion with her father brought me close to tears. Will Sharpe was great as the troubled, repentant Lysimachus, while Ronan Hatfull was both funny and scary as the youthful gangsta, Boult. I really wouldn't want to meet him. Perhaps the most extraordinary performance, however, came as Peter M. Smith tottered around stage in high heels and leopard skin dress as Bawd, in the memorable brothel scene (thanks, George Wilkins); and the transformation of the space into a sleazy club in Lesbos was wonderful to behold. Chris Gleeson played multiple roles very well. Cecilia Kendall White was impressive as Dionyza, and Jen Waghorn was amazing in her multivalent roles as instrumentalist and actor. Jen Waghorn, Jenny Bulcraig and Rhiannon Davies make up the folk group JennyWentAway, and on this evidence it is well worth travelling to see them.

Pericles, then, is a wonderful play. I left the Shakespeare Institute feeling like a bipolar teenager, having laughed, gasped and almost cried - all in the space of two hours. As I walked down the Stratford street, I smiled at the devotion, skill and creativity of Ketterer's men. I mean, what they did with the line, "Come, gentlemen, we sit too long on trifles" was perfect. Just perfect. Will and his fine co-author George Wilkins would also have laughed.

Well done, and thank you, to Ketterer's Men. Long may they play.

The next plays I am going to are . . . 
A Winter's Tale, at the Cockpit Theatre, Marylebone, London, 27th Feb. 
The Massacre at Paris by Christopher Marlowe, Rose Theatre, London, 11th March. 

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Review: The Knight of the Burning Pestle by Francis Beaumont, at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

In this year of another Monty Python reunion, it is right to remind ourselves that anarchic, absurdist comedy did not begin in the twentieth century. One needs only turn to Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy (1759), to prove that. There one finds digressions within digressions, with the whole structure of the novel turned inside out and lampooned. Going even further back to 1607, to this, Francis Beaumont's comic masterpiece, the performance itself is hijacked by the audience, subverted, and replaced by plays within a play, with many absurdist pranks throughout. Both Tristram Shandy and The Burning Pestle are thus thoroughly post-modern works - indeed, they render "post-modernity" an absurd anachronistic misnomer. As Eric Idle might have nasally pronounced: when it comes to comedy, "plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose."

Francis Beaumont was a contemporary of William Shakespeare. However, unlike other dramatists in the Southwark circle such as Thomas Middleton and John Fletcher, he did not write with the bard. He did, however, collaborate closely and successfully with Shakespeare's co-author, John Fletcher; and together they produced some of the most popular plays of the Jacobean period. 

Beaumont and Fletcher got together because they were united in failure. The Knight of the Burning Pestle went down very badly with the audience at Blackfriars, who thought it was all a bit silly. John Fletcher had a flop a year later with the Faithful Shepherdess, which also premiered at Blackfriars - obviously a tricky venue to play at the time. Thenceforth, however, Beaumont and Fletcher produced some fine, crowd-pleasing works, including The Woman Hater, Cupid's Revenge, The Maid's Tragedy  and The Scornful Lady. Fletcher and Beaumont were flatmates on Bankside, living near, and writing for, the Globe. It is wonderful to imagine Shakespeare, script in hand, popping around to see his two ambitious colleagues. Must have happened all the time. Unlike the Bard, however, these were posh boys; both university educated; Beaumont, the son of a Leicestershire knight; Fletcher the son of a bishop. Both died prematurely. Beaumont had a stroke in 1613  at the age of 29, and wrote no more plays after that. He died aged 32. Fletcher succumbed to the plague aged 45. Life really was tough back then, with death and disease all around. No wonder people flocked to the Globe, where, for a couple of hours, imagination could take flight from grim, pitiless circumstances. 

Anyway, to the play itself. From the start this was a whole heap of pre post modern, absurdist fun. Phil Daniels played Citizen, an upwardly mobile grocer who has had quite enough plays about royals and merchants, and interrupts the proceedings to demand a more representative storyline. In this commotion, what we see is the first portrayal of the common people demanding representation in the media - progressive stuff. Was this the spiritual founding of the BBC? 

Without exception, the cast were brilliant, and carried the chaotic lunacy with infectious energy and enthusiasm. Phil Daniels was, of course, perfect for the role of the troublesome Londoner, and orchestrated the play charismatically throughout. However, it was his wife, played by the multi-talented Pauline McLynn, who really stole the show with her emotionally charged commentaries and sudden revisions. The interplay of Daniels and McLynn was a joy to behold, and somehow the kept the whole anarchic show on the road. 

Another role that came close to stealing the show was that of Humphrey, played by Dickson Tyrrell - the pompous rival to Jasper (Alex Waldman) for the hand of the merchant's daughter, Luce - superbly played by Sarah MacRae. I had seen Tyrrell and Waldman just before in the Duchess of Malfi; and their switch from bloody drama to these comic roles was impressive, and hilarious. I will carry the vision of Humphrey dressed gloriously in his pink finest for a long time. 

Matthew Needham was excellent as the do or die Rafe, the commoner suddenly elevated to the starring role, with symbolism-charged pestle in hand. Hannah McPake had the difficult role of the unsympathetic Mistress Merrythought; and, together with Giles Cooper as Michael, the duo highlighted the centrality of money in these unforgiving times. The Dionysian Merrythought himself (Paul Rider), who cared nothing for money, sang his way throughout the play, to the delight of the audience. 

I had a seat right next to the musicians box, and it was interesting watching on at the often frenetic activity therein. Musical director, Nicholas Perry has done a amazing job with the music for this performance, and David Hatcher and Alex McCartney played with gusto, humour and skill. A special mention must be made of Emily Askew, whose playing of the violin and recorders added immeasurably to the raucous atmosphere. At the end of the play, the audience gave the ensemble a rousing roar of approval. Hats off to the Globe musicians!

I loved this play, and its performance. Given its absurdities and class references, it is very much a work at home in the 21st century. Unfortunately for the young Francis Beaumont, however, audiences weren't ready for this kind of progressive work in 1608. That said, for Beaumont, this unjustified flop lead onto the fruitful collaborations with John Fletcher, and much fame and applause before his untimely demise. 

This is the second play I have seen at the Sam Wanamaker's theatre, and both have been vivid and highly impressive. While the Globe itself produces superb popular renditions of Shakespeare, next door in the Bear Pit, it is wonderful that the Bard's contemporaries are now being heard as well - just as it was when Will, Francis and John would pop down the road to applaud each other's performances. 

The next plays I am going to are . . . 
Pericles, by William Shakespeare and George Wilkins, The Hall of the Shakespeare Institute, Stratford upon Avon, 22nd February. 
A Winter's Tale, at the Cockpit Theatre, Marylebone, London, 27th Feb. 
The Massacre at Paris by Christopher Marlowe, Rose Theatre, London, 11th March. 

Friday, February 14, 2014

Buddhist Beckett and the Bawdy Bard

Another two plays in a day. My Bardoholicism is getting worse, and the withdrawal symptoms kick in quicker and harder with each passing week. On Tuesday night I was to be found tapping on the computer desperately searching for a Shakespeare play I hadn't already seen. Eventually, I found one, down in the balmy climes of Peckham. Hurrah - another Bard production. And I get to see Peckham!

Well that was Wednesday evening sorted. Was there anything I could see in the afternoon?  I scanned the Interweb for matinee performances. What's this? Last minute tickets for Juliet Stevenson in Happy Days for a tenner. Blimey. Bargain.

Arriving at Waterloo station in the midst of Stormageddon, I was late and sploshed randomly from street to street looking for the Young Vic. Eventually, with five minutes to go, I spotted a huge poster of Juliet Stevenson dressed as a rainbow ball, and soggily entered the theatre. Grabbing my ticket and  a pint of pale ale, I was hurriedly ushered dripping and panting to the "gallery". The view was fine, and as the final remnants of the audience drifted murmeringly in, I peered down at the dark set of blasted rock, at the end of which was the bowed figure of a woman immersed up to her waist in earth. She did not move. Another five minutes and she still had not moved. Silence grew, and still she bowed, with not a breath; not a tremble. 

The silence then was shattered by one of the nastiest, most unearthly noises I ever heard. It was horrible. Then, silence. Then that skull shattering noise again. The theatre lights dazzled, and up sprang Winnie, who smiled out at the audience: 

"Another heavenly day."

Happy Days is very simple, and enormously complex at the same time - an unflinching examination of futility; funny and heart-breaking throughout. Samuel Beckett's stage notes are exacting about the arrangements of the set, and the sounds - even about the appearance of Winnie. Some people find the resulting static set and monologue too austere and harsh to be entertaining. I, however, found it fascinating and moving. I was glad to be seeing the play in the raw at last. As a teenager I had sat wide-eyed in front the telly in 1979 watching Billie Whitelaw manically gabbering through pain and death - a performance that has stayed with me ever since. 

Happy Days is very much a Buddhist play. Though steeped in Anglicanism, Beckett was interested in Buddhist phenomenology. Emptiness is there in much of his dramatic work, and Happy Days raises questions of the meaning or value of a brief painful life between two voids. Stuck in a hole in the ground in the middle of a blasted wilderness, Winnie is forced to confront mortality and extinction full on. She tries as much as she can, however, to keep herself busy, in a mustn't grumble kind of way. Much of comedy and tragedy in the play comes from her exploring and weaving stories around the contents of her bag. What with her husband Willie grunting behind her in a hole, then, there is just - just enough to occupy her, and keep her from collapsing emotionally. Not doing so, is, however, a struggle, and the play rests on this pivot between emotional survival and collapse. 

Juliet Stevenson is an astonishing actress. Through her strained smiles, warm stories, and encouraging calls to Willy, she embodies bravery amidst horror, with iron in the soul that keeps her going, day after day - after day. Although the play is ultimately about nothing (it is a Buddhist play, after all), Juliet Stevenson's performance raised issues of decrepitude and senility. As Winnie told another half remembered story, hoping to be heard, I thought of a husband and wife in a care home; with one trying to keep the other going. As long as one has memories (the bag), life is still worth living - just. Happy Days thus shares many of the themes explored in Krapp's Last Tape. Indeed, it is arguably a sequel to the earlier work, being produced only three years later, in 1961. 

With every smile and shrug of her shoulders, Winnie bats her demons away - and we are all on her side. What bravery, what heartbreak - Beckett has produced a work of art that confronts us with what we prefer to ignore, and raises the question of how we deal with decline and extinction as it draws inevitably closer. I left in awe of  Beckett's vision, and the humane, affirming acting of my favourite actress, Juliet Stevenson. 

I reemerged into blinding sunshine and strolled to the Tate, where I spent an hour in the current Surrealist exhibition, staring at Picassos, Dalis, a Bacon, a Julian Trevelyan;  and one of the wonderful COBRA artists, Karel Appel's brutal painting, Hip Hip Hoorah! 

Taking the overland train to Peckham Rye, I eventually found the the CLF Art Cafe opposite the station. I entered an empty bar (very Beckett) and was greeted by a genial and informative barmaid. I ordered a beer and sat down - I liked it here. Gradually, the bar filled up and we were ushered two flights upstairs to the performance area. Here was another bar, surrounded by several loud, self confident young people. One came to me. "Chin chin" he said, and clinked his glass with mine. Strange, I thought. A young woman then turned to me and asked if I had seen her brother. Aha - got it - Twelfth Night. Later on as we waited for the play to begin, a young man came asking if I had seen his sister and gave a detailed description of her. I smiled. Nice start. 

Then the play began in earnest. Staged by the Whistlestop Theatre Company, this was a highly energetic performance - wired, even. From the dreamy beginning  of 'If music be the food of love, play on . . " the proceedings accelerated to a break neck speed, with actors whizzing around the stage, delivering punchy, mock earnest speeches, stomping hither and thither. You couldn't catch your breath. 

The play itself is, I think, one of Shakespeare's silliest and weakest comedies. It is, however, interesting and quite funny in parts. The play utilises not one, but two foundational comic devices - gender bending; and twins causing havoc. Gender bending is one of the commonest and most successful comic structures, underpinning films like Some Like it Hot, Sorority Boys and White Chicks (all very funny indeed). Shakespeare also used it in As You Like It - a more interesting and entertaining play, in my opinion. Using twins, and the confusion they cause is another perennial comic device, employed in films such as the Prince and the Pauper. Shakespeare also it used in the Comedy of Errors - another of my least favourite plays. You have to admire Shakespeare's audacity in using both devices, however. Flashy. 

Anyway, back to the performance. Some of the acting was very good. Leah Bryony Cooper was great as the haughty Olivia, who falls for Viola (disguised as a man). Cam Spence's performance in this gender bending role was light, engaging, and funny. James Taylor Thomas was entertaining as the self-deluding, and ultimately humiliated Malvolio. I also liked Emma Richardson's naughty Maria. The standout performance for me, however, was Jack Finch as Sebastian, who played things straighter and less for laughs, injecting some much needed naturalism to the unlikely events. Anyway, overall, I enjoyed the play, and commend the cast for putting on such an energetic and creative performance. 

Later, back at the bar, the actors emerged for some well deserved drinks. I sat and listened as they laughed and bantered about the evening's events, and thought what potential there was in this young Company. As I sat, the actor who played Malvolio approached and thanked me for coming. We chatted a bit about the play, and I thought, how wonderful to be young and talented, and involved in something like this. 

On the train back to Lincolnshire later that evening, I thought about the plays and their performances. They really couldn't have been more different. One, a modernist play of genius - one of Beckett's best - a female monologue by Britain's finest actress, raising uncomfortable questions about existence, pain, futility. The other, an Enlightenment play by a genius - but one of his weakest- an ensemble production by a fresh batch of young talent, raising smiles and laughs, and arguably, some themes about gender and identity. Not much in common at all, then. Except for two things. Firstly, in contrast to the hypnotic, virtual worlds we inhabit through modern media and telecommunications, here were live events  in real time, here and now, with people braving the tightrope that is public performance. I was there. I saw it. The second thing they had in common was this - I thoroughly enjoyed them both. Bravo to Juliet Stevenson and the Whistlestop Theatre Company. Bravo. 

The next play I am going to is . . . The Knight of the Burning Pestle, by Francis Beaumont, at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, The Globe, London, Thursday, 20th February at 19:30. 

Friday, February 7, 2014

Dr Faustus vs The Duchess of Malfi

Who would win in a fight between Dr Faustus and the Duchess of Malfi? This question bugged me as I contemplated seeing two major Enlightenment performances in one day. It was a difficult one to call . . . Faustus was clever and powerful; the Duchess, sexy and spirited . . . Mmmm.

Such musings aside, rattling down the rails towards London, I viewed the prospect of the forthcoming dramatic marathon with excitement, conscious that this day could mark the point when my Bardoholicism escalated to an addiction to English renaissance plays generally. I mean, talk about dabbling with crack cocaine. John Webster's tragedy, the very first production at the new Sam Wanamaker theatre at the Globe? Then, a couple of hours later, Christopher Marlowe's Dr Faustus, performed in the remains of the Rose Theatre, the very place it was performed 420 years ago? Reckless behaviour. I really had no chance.

Strolling from Kings X down towards the river I passed the homes of many great, and not so great, former Londoners. Thomas Carlyle, Kenneth Williams, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, Dr Johnson .  . .and eventually reached the Globe. I had managed to secure the very last ticket in the entire run of Malfi, a ten quid standing job on the last row of the upper balcony, which had - my booking webpage informed me - "a severely restricted view". Shuffling along a raised platform to find my place, however, I was pleasantly surprised by the view and acoustics. Not to be feared at all.

The theatre itself is a wonder to behold. Sam Wanamaker, the visionary behind the Globe (and father to actress Zoe), envisioned plays being performed all year round. The completion of the theatre this year marked the completion of this vision. It is a building within a building, with a roof -   a near perfect reconstruction of an indoor Elizabethan/ Jacobean dramatic space, all made of wood, supported by pillars, and - get this - illuminated purely by candle light. I thought the result would be gloomy, and was prepared not to like it. Not a bit of it. The candles brought the space to life in a much more dynamic, interesting way than brute electric lamps.

The music in the gallery petered out, and the play began . .

The Duchess of Malfi was first  performed in 1613, and it has divided critics and audiences ever since, largely because of its gratuitous violence and the unrepentant sexuality of the Duchess. For these reasons, the play has had long spells out of rep altogether; however, the 20th century saw its re-admittance into the canon of great plays, with fierce advocates such as TS Eliot and WH Auden.

The story is about corruption, class and the subjugation of women. It is dominated by the Duchess, a rich widow, whose brothers forbade her to marry again, so that they could keep the inheritance intact. A young, spirited and passionate woman, however, she fell in love with, and married a man of lower status; and thus had to keep the arrangement secret. Three kids later, however, the facade was crumbling, and her brothers got wind of the situation. Here indeed were the brothers from Hell.  Her elder brother, a Cardinal was an evil, machiavellian,  intemperate man, disposed to acts of cruelty and depravity. Worse still, her twin, Ferdinand, was mentally unstable and prone to fits of jealousy, betrayal, greed,  revenge. Not good news for the duchess, who had dared to go against their word.

Through the machinations of the complex, melancholic figure of Bosola, Ferdinand tried to traumatise her, and drive her mad through revealing a waxwork of her dead husband and child (though they were actually still alive at the time); and through inviting lunatics to invade her privacy. I said the brothers were nasty. Eventually, the long suffering duchess is strangled. Pathetically, then, Ferdinand comes to her body and regrets what has happened, uttering the lines, "Cover her face; mine eyes dazzle. She died young."

Gemma Arterton as the Duchess is a joy to behold. Perfectly cast, she exudes modernity, intelligence and integrity and  lights up the stage with a proud sexuality. She is, however, surrounded by the dark forces of bigotry, corruption and opportunism; and, ultimately, darkness prevails. This interplay between light and dark was explored skillfully throughout the play by the use and positioning of the candles. Arterton's chemistry with the delightful Alex Waldmann, who played her husband, was vivid and charming.  Her portrayal of strength and dignity in the face of insufferable insult and violence was electrifying. A performance like this affirms and invigorates; and, like everybody else in the theatre that afternoon, I fell in love with the Duchess.

But this was not a one woman show. James Gardon as the Cardinal was entertainingly dissolute, and Sean Gilder was fascinating as the devious but ultimately moralistic Bosola. Denise Gough was great as the coquettish, dangerous Julia; and David Dawson's Ferdinand was compelling as he became increasingly repulsive. Needless to say, they all died horribly - this is John Webster, after all.

I left the bloodbath . . . I mean the theatre  . . . with just time for a red wine, then went onto meet friends M and AK for a quick meal and catch up. Onto the Rose Theatre. This could not have been a more different experience. We entered a small, cold ante-room, where there was a table with cans of beer and small plaster busts of Shakespeare for sale. A pretty young woman with a bobble hat next to us rubbed her gloves together and said she had come prepared. We were shown into the "theatre" in the archaeological dig, which consisted of a daunting looking desk with some books on it, and a chair - that's it. It was all rather intimidating, even before Christopher Staines took a seat and distractedly glanced around the assembled.

What proceeded was one of the most astonishing performances - of anything - I have ever seen. Christopher Staines took on the whole cast of Faustus himself, and rendered the script as a kind of internal/ infernal monologue leading to madness and death. As is well known, the play itself has a menacing theme, being about a brilliant academic, who, dissatisfied with the limitations of human knowledge, sells his soul to the devil for twenty four years of being able to do . . . and know . . anything. This menacing - indeed borderline blasphemous - play had electrifying effects on the original audiences in the same place 420 years before. In one performance, apparently, Faustus' incantations summoned up real demons, who were seen by a whole audience, leading to mass trauma, and one of the lead actors - Edward Alleyne - repenting and dutifully performing good works for the rest of his life, including the foundation of Dulwich College.

If anybody could raise real demons in London this night, it was Christopher Staines, whose already daring performance gave way to fifteen minutes of tightrope rant. This led him to tear down the curtain behind him, to reveal the illuminated circle of the original Rose Theatre. He careered around this like a madman, yelping out weird, unstable narratives and paradoxes . . . ending up with him back at his desk, toying with the idea of Marlowe spinning in his grave. Staines then returned to the orthodox text, which crescendoed to a desperate plea to God to save his soul.

This was strong stuff indeed, which had me laughing, wincing, sinking into the allure of utter, unbridled freedom; and the dread of eternal torture. At the end of this, we clapped and gaped at this astonishing performance, in the very place it had been performed all those years ago. Rather than spinning in his grave, I suspect Marlowe was nodding in approval.

Outside, London glittered and shone. The day's dramatic journey had subtly recast my view of the city, and deepened my appreciation of its endless creative currents. By the Thames that night, we clinked whiskies and chuckled at our good fortune - being here, now.

As I walked up Borough High Street to my hotel, my mind returned to the burning question of the day. On the evidence of these plays, who would win a fight - Faustus or the Duchess of Malfi?

Of course, Faustus could do anything he wanted, and could, merely by wishing it, destroy the Duchess. However, having set eyes on her, he wouldn't want to. The Duchess would pace to his desk, and close his books, and calm his fears of Hell. The Duchess would smile; and she and Faustus would take a bow.

That's how all fights should end.