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Fw: [Shakespeare_and_Company] London theatre journal, July 2007

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  • Jenny
    ... From: Jenny To: Sent: Monday, July 16, 2007 11:40 PM Subject:
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      ----- Original Message -----
      From: "Jenny" <jenny.stockholm@...>
      To: <Shakespeare_and_Company@yahoogroups.com>
      Sent: Monday, July 16, 2007 11:40 PM
      Subject: [Shakespeare_and_Company] London theatre journal, July 2007


      I'll just post this as one long post, so scroll past anything that
      you're not interested in. The productions covered here are in
      chronological order: Macbeth (Open Air), Othello (Shakespeare's
      Globe), Saint Joan (NT, Olivier), Love's Labour's Lost
      (Shakespeare's Globe), The Complete Works of Shakespeare [abridged]
      (Arts Theatre), Stoppard Shorts (King's Head), The Hothouse (NT,
      Lyttelton), The Pain and the Itch (Royal Court) and A Midsummer
      Night's Dream (Open Air). I'll try to keep the off-topic comments on
      the non-Bardic plays quite short, and will start to catch up on the
      discussion of The Tempest tomorrow. Btw, has anyone else seen any
      good Shakespeare productions recently?

      Tuesday July 10th - Macbeth - 1.5 stars out of 5

      The skies had cleared by the evening, despite the long period of
      persistent rain that England has seen lately, and I was rather
      relieved as I was headed to the Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park to
      see Macbeth. It's always a bit of a gamble to buy a ticket for
      outdoor theatres long in advance, and unlike the seats of the Globe,
      the Open Air is completely open to the elements. Still, it turned
      out to be a lovely evening, which was just as well as the production
      wasn't anything to brighten your day. The set was quite sparse, but
      with a cast of 22 I wasn't surprised that money might have been a
      bit tight for this, not that I mind a simple set.

      Most of the actors in it were complete unknowns to me, with a few
      names sounding slightly more familiar, but the problem with this
      production isn't really the acting, but the directing. One peculiar
      directorial decision after another, and it soon becomes pretty clear
      that whatever weaknesses and flaws are present in the acting, those
      are the result of poor or insufficient direction (by Edward Kemp).
      The first scene with the weird sisters ends with the loud sound of a
      jet screeching overhead, recorded, not an accidental disturbance,
      and when the scene with Duncan and his entourage gets underway, the
      reason for the strange sound effect soon becomes clear.

      The setting is a bit confused, but appears to be 20th century-ish
      (and a bit Russian), as Duncan's men enters in a army vehicle and
      carry machine guns, and the "bloody man" that Duncan sees
      approaching turns out to be the captain turned into a fighter pilot,
      and apparently it was he that was downed in his jet when that
      earlier sound effect was played. It becomes very strange to hear him
      relay news of how valiantly Macbeth fought; did he see that up from
      his fighter plane? Ludicrous. The pilot isn't carried away to be
      cared for, as he should be if this followed the text, instead his
      (dead) body remains on stage, for no other purpose than to allow the
      next scene with the sisters a bit of extra gore, when one of them
      cuts off what she triumphantly declares to be a "pilot's thumb",
      which is probably why the director thought that it was clever to
      turn that character into a fighter pilot. Sigh.

      Now, all outdoor venues have a problem with noise spilling in, but
      the Open Air has worse problems than the Globe in this respect.
      First of all, its location is far closer to the nearest main road,
      and its open layout does nothing to block out sound, unlike the
      Globe, which is a rather contained space where the most serious
      noise comes from the odd overhead plane or helicopter. In Regent's
      Park there are also other activities that cause noise, and this
      evening there seemed to be a football game going on nearby, and the
      wind caused the leaves of the trees that line the stage area to
      rustle so noisily that audibility at times became a problem. It's a
      lovely venue, but more suited to an evening of socializing at the
      theatre than it is to seriously enjoy a Shakespeare production.

      I daresay that's mainly why most of the audience was there, as it
      was at times clear that they lacked either a knowledge of the play
      or an understanding of the text. Passages that often make people
      laugh or snigger, due to their irony in the context of the play,
      went by silently, and the only real laughs were for the somewhat
      overemphasized physicality of the porter scene and some similar
      touches to the banqueting scene.

      When Duncan arrives at Macbeth's castle, there an inexplicable bit
      of Cossack dancing, but then Duncan and the others don't leave the
      stage, instead they remain, sort of silently and slowly miming a
      dance as Macbeth delivers his first soliloquy, which seems to serve
      no purpose. The insertion of the coronation of Macbeth is something
      that I can accept, but the many minor changes to the text don't
      really serve a purpose, instead they feel almost perverse. When
      Macbeth orders the servant to let him know when things are ready
      (before the murder of Duncan) he calls the servant "girl", why is
      this change necessary? Because it's played by a woman? No such
      change needed be made. Though it's possible that this was actually a
      case of bad diction, but what professional actor would garble the
      simple word "go" so badly that is sounds like "girl"? Similarly,
      when the director has decided that it isn't just Macduff who
      encounters Ross and tells him that he won't be going to Macbeth's
      coronation, but instead to Fife, but rather both Macduff and Lady
      Macduff (why!?!), the line is changed to "we'll to Fife". Aargh!

      Banquo and Fleance come off as a couple of strangers meeting by
      accident in the night, not father and son going about their
      business, and when Banquo is murdered there's no call to Fleance to
      run and avenge him later. This makes Fleance's running away seem
      very cowardly, clearly never Shakespeare's intention as Fleance is
      supposed to be the ancestor of James I for whom this was first
      performed, but at least this saves the audience the trouble of
      wondering why Fleance never returns to take his revenge, as he ought
      to have done.

      The actors do their best, and they are the only reason this
      production don't get just one star, even if there's not any
      particular performance that stands out. The shortcomings of the
      production is clearly down to the director, and the way many of the
      actors are just acting and never reacting, just standing still as
      other characters speak, is a sure sign of just that. As Saturday's
      MND would be the same ensemble, with the same production team but
      with another director, I wasn't all that concerned about whether it
      would rain on Saturday, as I figured that I wouldn't be too sorry to
      miss that.

      Wednesday July 11th - Othello (matinee) - 3.25 stars out of 5

      Back in May, when I was passing through London on my way to
      Newcastle, I just barely managed to see half of one of the preview
      performances of Othello at the Globe, but I was totally amazed and
      blown away by what I saw then - a production where Roderigo manages
      to completely upstage Iago in every scene that they had together.
      When I saw that I would now just about be able to squeeze in a
      performance of this production, now in full swing, I was very
      pleased and curious to see if the finished article was what I had
      suspected from that half preview. And it more or less is, though
      Iago, played by Tim McInnerny, is now able to hold his ground
      against Sam Crane's Roderigo. You might do well to remember that
      last name, for Crane must surely be one of the brightest rising
      stars of the British stage.

      Othello is played by Eamonn Walker, and at first I liked his
      performance, but by the third act he had already reached a state of
      growling and shouting frenzy, which he more or less maintained for
      the rest of the play, which seemed somewhat unsubtle and flat. Why
      do so many actors confuse volume with intensity? Puzzling. Walker
      was alright, though I wish he would have found more nuances to his
      Othello, and Zoe Tapper as Desdemona was very good, spirited and
      believable, and more than his match.

      Casting Tim McInnerny as Iago must have been something of a gamble,
      despite his Shakespeare credentials, as he's so well known as his
      Blackadder characters that you almost risk the audience giggling
      just at the sight of him, but there was no undue laughter here, nor
      should there have been as he puts in a very believable performance
      as Iago. I wasn't taken with what I saw back in May, but now he
      seems to have fully gotten under the skin of his character and it's
      a ruffled, tired, somewhat bitter Iago that he gives us, all the
      more believable as he seems so very *ordinary*, no exaggerated signs
      of his villainy, which makes it all the more chilling. It's a man
      that knows that he's past his prime, that his opportunity to advance
      himself has really passed him by and that other, younger men have
      overtaken him on the career path, and McInnerny does this in a very,
      very credible manner.

      It's nice to see his performance so improved, as Sam Crane's
      Roderigo still remains an extraordinary portrayal of a lovesick fop
      dreaming of Desdemona, an easily led coward of a man, done with all
      the comic timing that you could wish for. This is one performer that
      I'll be sure to watch out for in the future. It's a competent
      production, but it suffers a bit from how unevenly the performances
      are matched. Solid, if not tremendously exciting.

      The music of the play is excellent and provides quite a bit of comic
      relief, as the poor musicians are harrowed by the impatient actors
      whenever they get fed up with the time they're taking. Overall a
      good production, though not great, but still a satisfying way to
      spend three hours and 15 minutes. I hadn't noticed that there was to
      be a talk after the play, but I had already made plans to meet with
      the other moderators of the whatsonstage.com discussion boards half
      an hour later so I couldn't stay, which I really, *really* regretted
      as I walked from the Globe towards the NT.

      Wednesday July 11th - Saint Joan - 4.25 stars out of 5

      For once I was going to see a play that I had no prior knowledge of,
      having never even read it, George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan, about
      Joan of Arc in case you didn't already know, and this turned out to
      be a pleasant surprise. It's a bit disjointed, at least as it comes
      across here, but the first half is outstanding, and one of the most
      exciting experiences I've had at the theatre in a long time. The
      battle of Orleans is rousing, powerful and visually striking, and
      the first half of the play confirms Marianne Elliott as one of the
      most interesting and talented directors currently working in
      England. Fantastic, and if only the rest of the play had been that
      good. As it is, it's at times an odd mix of strong comedy (the first
      half) juxtaposed with a sudden shift into serious comedy (the second
      half), which doesn't really combine all that well, but this is a
      problem that has everything to do with the writing, and isn't really
      any fault of this production, even if it can't get around the flaws
      of the play itself.

      Still, it's very, very good, even if some more cuts could have been
      made (I hear that an hour had already been cut) and surprisingly
      modern and relevant, as Shaw deals with colonialism, hypocrisy, the
      corruption of the church and man's failure to learn from the
      mistakes of the past. It's also very funny, which surprised me
      immensely, and strongly acted on all fronts. I won't get into too
      much detail as this isn't Shakespeare, but Anne-Marie Duff as Joan
      is great, and there are excellent performances from Angus Wright in
      particular, and also Oliver Ford Davies and Paterson Joseph. Highly
      recommended for anyone who happens to be in London while this is
      still playing.

      Thursday July 12th - Love's Labour's Lost (matinee) - 2.5 stars out
      of 5

      Back to the Globe for Dominic Dromgoole's production of Love's
      Labour's Lost. I approached this with some trepidation, well
      remembering Dromgoole's monumental failure with "Antony and
      Cleopatra" last year, but I must say that I did actually enjoy most
      of this, even if it was at times against my own better judgement.
      This production works, but let's be clear about what it is; it's
      Shakespeare done according to the lowest common denominator, and at
      times it's more panto than play. And the production suffers some of
      the same problems that last year's A&C did, some scenes are so
      rushed that it's almost hard to catch what's being said, and at
      other times you wonder if the actors really understand their lines
      fully. I remain unimpressed with Dromgoole as a Shakespearean
      director, but at least he seems more at home with this kind of
      material than with the more lyrical great tragedies.

      The Princess of France is played as a feisty and spirited woman,
      even more so than Rosaline, and Michelle Terry really shines as the
      Princess, good for her to get some meatier lines after having to
      play the meek Perdita at the RSC this past winter. Another actor
      from that RSC production of WT (and Pericles) is Trystan Gravelle,
      who plays Berowne, but he makes far from the same strong impression
      as he did at the RSC, even though he only had minor parts in those
      productions. Part of the problem seems to be with the choice of
      having his Berowne speak with a Welsh accent, the only character to
      do so, and even though this is probably Gravelle's natural accent (I
      think he's Welsh) I don't recall him having any trouble losing it
      when he worked for the RSC, so why he alone has a Welsh accent seems
      puzzling. I heard a large number of people complaining about having
      trouble hearing or understanding his lines due to the accent, and I
      must say that I also found it a hindrance at times, even though I
      know this play so well. It also seems somewhat at odds with
      Berowne's character as a master of using language, a smooth talker,
      but possibly the decision was that having him use a Welsh accent
      would be to invoke some sort of general Celtic gift of the gab, but
      I'm really being overly kind in considering that as a possible
      explanation.

      This is a play that has some of the Bard's most inventive use of
      language, some of the wittiest puns and some of the funniest
      malapropisms, but far too little is made of that, instead the
      physical comedy is expanded to take its place - a bit of a
      disappointment, and it seems almost a cowardly way to go. Why direct
      Shakespeare if you don't have faith that the material can hold its
      own without going only for the cheap laughs? Let me give you but one
      example; when they're playing the Nine Worthies at the end,
      Nathaniel is laughed at when he plays Alexander. Not content with
      what's in the play, Dromgoole has him do the scene wearing a sort of
      horse outfit, kind of like a bath ring that he has around him, which
      he then drops, revealing that he's only wearing a shirt, and when he
      turns his back to the audience to pick up his horse outfit/bath ring
      he moons the audience as we then get to see, very clearly, that he's
      not wearing any underpants, and believe you me, this was carefully
      staged and in no way an accident. Funny? Possibly. Necessary? Not
      really.

      Despite this, the actors on the whole make good work of what they've
      been given, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that Dromgoole had
      again cast William Mannering, this time as Longaville, an actor that
      has all the comic timing that you could ask for, and that is
      certainly needed for this play, especially as Dromgoole has chosen
      to go down the path of physical comedy. Rosaline is well played by
      someone that I've never come across before, Gemma Arterton, and
      Katherine by another newcomer, Oona Chaplin, and with a name like
      that I would imagine that she's probably Charlie Chaplin's
      granddaughter or some other close relation. All in all a fun
      production for the most part, but don't expect subtlety or finesse,
      which is a shame considering what can be done with this play. The
      audience seemed to enjoy it tremendously, even if some of that
      enjoyment was clearly fuelled by the proximity of the theatre bar.

      Thursday July 12th - The Complete Works of Shakespeare [abridged] -
      4 stars out of 5

      This is the new, rewritten version of the American production/play,
      still played by American actors, and my, what a fun way to spend an
      evening at the theatre. Especially the first half, which is
      absolutely hilarious as they manage to go through 36 plays in under
      an hour, though some are only mentioned, and not really touched upon
      too much. After the interval the remaining 40 minutes or so are
      spent on Hamlet, and even though it's at times very, very funny, it
      does lag a bit when compared to the first act. There are quite a lot
      of topical materials inserted here and there, and the audience
      (including me) was at times laughing almost hysterically. One point
      which I almost hesitate to mention, but I suppose it's OK since it
      was written and acted by Americans, is when they do a quick version
      of Hamlet *backwards*, and tell the audience to listen for
      the "satanic message" that will be revealed when playing it
      backwards; this turns out to be "George Bush is a genius" and people
      were practically rolling down the aisles at that one.

      An excellent way to spend an evening, especially if you know your
      Shakespeare, and the small and intimate venue, the Arts Theatre off
      Leicester Square, is the right kind of place for this. This is a
      combined bar and theatre, and having a drink during the interval is
      certainly not a bad idea, and it seems that the people who had a
      drink before it even started probably enjoyed it the most :-D It's
      certainly a production that I would recommend, especially if you can
      get a cheap seat; I paid less than 20 pounds for a seat in the
      stalls, which seemed more or less the right price.

      Friday July 13th - Stoppard Shorts (lunchtime performance) - 3.75
      stars out of 5

      To celebrate Tom Stoppard's 70th birthday, the King's Head theatre
      is putting on a lunchtime show that they're calling "Stoppard
      Shorts", consisting of two of Stoppard's early radio plays, now
      mounted as real stage productions. The King's Head is a funny little
      place, and probably has a maximum capacity of about 90 people, if
      you really pack them in, located as it is at the back of the King's
      Head bar in Islington. This must clearly be a labour of love where
      people work for free, as tickets are only 5 pounds, and the
      performance that I attended had 18 people in the audience to the 10
      actors on stage.

      The first piece is the best, "The Dissolution of Dominic Boot"
      (never before done on stage), a very funny piece about a young man
      who's trying, with mounting desperation, to pay for an ever longer
      taxi journey while his life comes tumbling down around him. The
      second one is more in the absurd vein, "If You're Glad, I'll Be
      Frank", where one woman is being forced to work as the speaking
      clock, while her husband tries to get her back, as she starts to
      crack from the strain of the monotony. An interesting 50 minutes,
      and for 5 pounds this is really excellent value for money, and two
      short plays that you're unlikely to see anywhere else anytime soon.

      Friday July 13th - The Hothouse (preview) - 3 stars out of 5

      Back to the NT for a bit of Pinter, one of his early plays from the
      late 50's. I came away from this a bit disappointed, both with the
      play and with some of the performances, but since this is still in
      previews there's still time for the performances to be improved.
      That this is an early work shows in the writing, which is at times
      remarkably unsubtle with its mix of Christmas time, a child of
      unknown paternity that is born, a virgin (a man named *Lamb*) who's
      declared as the father of that child and the absurdist slant of much
      of the dialogue. Stephen Moore as Roote delivers a befuddled
      character, a performance that I distinctly feel that I've seen him
      do before, Lia Williams' high-strung Miss Cutts is a puzzling piece
      of overacting, but possibly intentionally done, and the ending is
      completely unsatisfactory.

      On the positive side is Finbar Lynch's deliciously smooth operator
      Gibbs, but that unfortunately only further exposes the shortcomings
      of some of the other characterizations, even if Leo Bill's naïve
      Lamb is just about right for the part. I walked out of the theatre
      wondering why on earth the NT had chosen to revive this particular
      Pinter play, as it seems as one of his weaker ones and not a very
      typically Pinteresque play at all, but perhaps that's just me. It'll
      be interesting to see the reviews, perhaps the critics will all love
      this and declare it a true masterpiece, but I doubt it.

      Saturday July 14th - The Pain and the Itch (matinee) - 3.5 stars out
      of 5

      This play may be familiar to some of our US members, as it's a
      recent play by American playwright Bruce Norris which gets its UK
      premiere with this production at the Royal Court, directed by
      Dominic Cooke. It was a little startling, sitting in a theatre in
      London, to suddenly hear English actors, such as Matthew MacFadyen,
      speaking with American accents, but the reason for the accents soon
      becomes clear. It's such an American play, with expressions and
      speech patterns that no Brit would ever use, that it actually has to
      be done in American accents, for if it was done in British English
      you'd probably laugh at the absurdity of hearing the lines.

      It's at times very funny, even if some things might inadvertently be
      funnier to a London audience than an American one, such as when one
      character speaks admiringly (in an American accent) of the English
      accent, saying that it sounds so intelligent to speak like that. I
      won't give away the plot, as some of you might be seeing some
      production of this play, but it's pretty good, even if some things
      are a little unbelievable, and it's only at the very end that the
      presence of a seemingly unconnected character becomes clear. It's
      basically a story about a somewhat dysfunctional family, but I did
      find the child character extremely annoying; she has no lines, all
      she does is *screech* in an ear-splitting fashion which made at
      least me wish that someone would throttle her some time soon. Not my
      usual kind of fare, but it's well-written and strongly acted.

      Saturday July 14th - A Midsummer Night's Dream - 3 stars out of 5

      Well, this turned out to be rather better than I had feared after
      the really bad Macbeth, but this production also has some uncalled
      for alterations to the text which made little or no sense, such as
      some scattered instances where "thou" is turned into "you"
      and "that" becomes "this" for whatever reason. Even so, it's a much
      better production than Macbeth, which is puzzling as it's pretty
      much the same people involved in both productions, but I guess that
      only shows how much depends on the director, as this play was
      directed by Christopher Luscombe. This one did have more compelling
      performances, especially from the rustics as a group, and their
      production of "Pyramus and Thisbe" in the last act, which is often
      rather dull in performance despite it being meant to be funny, turns
      out to be the highlight of the evening and is the reason that this
      gets three stars after all.

      Mark Meadows as Oberon (and Theseus) is very good, but Sarah
      Woodward as Titania and Hippolyta doesn't really match his
      performance, especially her Titania, which is at times so crude that
      it's like having Doll Tearsheet masquerading as the Fairy Queen. The
      boy that the two are arguing about is here a grown man, which makes
      it a little odd when Titania talks about him as a "child" and
      a "boy", and we're quite clearly shown that her interest in him is
      of a more physical nature.

      The four young lovers are fairly good, even if Olivia Darnley makes
      for a very hoarse Hermia at times. The setting is a sort of marble
      amphitheatre that evokes ancient Athens, even if the characters are
      dressed in 19th century clothes, and this works nicely for the
      scenes when characters need to be onstage sleeping, while others are
      playing their scenes. After the hilarious Pyramus and Thisbe
      sequence, which is very much a case of amateur night at the forum,
      the ending is something of an anticlimax. Theseus and Hippolyta
      exit, but when the actors return as Oberon and Titania they haven't
      changed into the fairies' costumes, instead they have added a sort
      of a bow (which seems to be a way of representing fairy wings as
      this is how Puck is dressed throughout the play) to the back of
      their Theseus/Hippolyta clothes. The difference in appearance is so
      slight that it's hardly noticeable, and it rather gives you the
      impression that it's Theseus and Hippolyta that are directing the
      fairies at the end, and I wonder if the people that weren't terribly
      familiar with the play came away believing just that.

      Closing thoughts

      It was a very satisfying trip overall, and on Sunday I left my
      luggage at Victoria station and spent a few hours at the National
      Gallery before heading out to Heathrow. In addition to all the works
      that are on permanent display (of course I made a special point of
      having a closer look at Signorelli's depiction of when the Roman
      matrons come to plead with Coriolanus to spare Rome) there's
      currently a special exhibit, "Dutch Portraits", with plenty of works
      by Rembrandt and Frans Hals, as well as other 17th century Dutch
      masters. Absolutely lovely.

      //Jenny
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