A Midsummer Night’s Dream

I’ve seen Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream many times, but never Benjamin Britten’s opera, until now. Students at the Royal College of Music have staged a new and original production of this work.

The opera is very similar to the play in many respects, making use of Shakespeare’s words. The music is atmospheric and often quite unsettling, reflecting the eerie magical atmosphere of the original work. The character of Puck particularly stands out in this version, being the only one who doesn’t sing.

The best thing about this production was the setting: Wiemar Germany, a Cabaret-themed underworld with glitter and sparkle, into which the two couples, Hermia and Lysander, Helena and Demetrius, unwittingly wander. In addition to this, the character of Bottom sports a Hitler moustache, giving the character’s traditional arrogance a more chilling aspect. I wish this had been explored further in the Players’ performance at the end, which, however, was very funny.

Seeing the operatic version gave me a new way of looking at this play, and the setting was just brilliant. The performers did a great job, too. Definitely recommended.

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Julius Caesar

The Bridge Theatre, a brand new theatre next to Tower Bridge run by former National Theatre artistic director Nicholas Hytner, announced its inaugural Shakespeare production several months ago. A promenade production of Julius Caesar was planned, with tickets available as part of the mob, at the heart of the action, a bit like the Globe’s pit. I take issue with the ‘promenade’ description – to me, that implies moving from location to location. ‘Immersive’, to me, would be a better term, and immersive it certainly is.

Get there early to fully experience the atmosphere. Ushers walk around the pit, selling refreshments, badges and red baseball caps suspiciously similar to those seen on Donald Trump. On a raised platform, a band plays: The White Stripes’ ‘Seven Nation Army’, a rock version of Katy Perry’s ‘Roar’. The performance slides seamlessly into the beginning of the play.

This is a modern Caesar, exhilarating and immediate. The immersive aspect is not a gimmick, but an integral part of the play. Raised platforms change the shape of the stage while ushers (actors?) herd the mob away from the rising shapes. The immensely populist Caesar (a superb David Calder) walks among the people, shaking hands. (Contrast this with Brutus, who only stoops to sign a copy of one of his books for a fan). At Caesar’s assassination, the crowd is told to get down, against the possibility of further gunfire; as the action descends into war, the mob is herded aside as casualties are rushed past and the sound of explosives is heard overhead. Being part of the changeable mob makes Mark Antony’s famous speech (performed powerfully by David Morrissey) even more impactful. Holding up a black and white picture of Caesar, it’s easy to get caught up in the moment.

All this and I haven’t even mentioned the conspirators yet. I’m convinced that Ben Wishaw is one of our greatest actors and his performance as Brutus only cemented my opinion. I wouldn’t immediately have imagined him as Brutus but he is superb: intelligent, an intellectual, genuinely concerned for the state of Rome but susceptible to flattery, and happier writing political theory than acting out revolutions. Michelle Fairley is an excellent Cassius, angry and determined to end tyranny, while Adjoa Andoh is a memorable Casca. More than in any other production I’ve seen, the conspirators – who too often become a faceless mass – are individually drawn. As Octavius Caesar, Kit Young makes an impact as the young leader, his triumph showing how the cycle of populism goes on and on.

This is without a doubt one of the best Julius Caesars I have ever seen – one of the best Shakespeares I have ever seen. I’m sure I will still be thinking about it for months to come.

Macbeth

I’m bracing myself for several productions of Macbeth this year: the RSC is doing it, the National’s doing it, and I’m kicking things off with the two-man version of the play by theatre group Out of Chaos. The production marked my first visit to the new Playground Theatre, located on an industrial estate a short bus ride from Shepherd’s Bush. If the location doesn’t sound too prepossessing, the venue is warm and welcoming, with a pleasant cafe and an auditorium that gives the impression of being highly versatile.

The play itself is a truncated version, around 90 minutes in length, solely performed by Troels Hagen Findsen and Paul O’Mahony – with occasional help from audience members, who are asked every now and then to read a line from a slip of paper. It’s impressive how well the pair are able to slip in and out of different characters – sometimes multiple times in one scene – and the pacing of the play never lets up. Props are kept to a minimum, limited to lighting and a few boxes on which the characters can climb.

I am familiar with Macbeth, but I did wonder if someone new to the play would be able to follow the story, as this version is very fast-paced. However, it still manages to be clever and highly enjoyable.

Twelfth Night

It’s safe to say that Twelfth Night is not my favourite Shakespeare play, but I’ve still managed to see some good productions in my time, not least the National’s version a few months back. The RSC’s version, directed by Christopher Luscombe, is also pretty good but very different. Set at the end of the nineteenth century when the age of decadence was in full swing, it makes use of ideas of empire, with a distinct Indian influence – here, the twins Viola and Sebastian are of Indian birth, as is Feste (Beruce Khan), who has become Olivia’s turban-wearing munshi in this production. His obvious dissatisfaction with having to clown around for his mistress’s benefit is a comment on the relationship between the powerful and the powerless, Victorian Britain and its colonies.

It’s the little details that impressed me about this production: not least the green carnation in Antonio’s buttonhole, which – popularised by Oscar Wilde and in common with the mores of the time – signified homosexuality. It lends a significance to Antonio’s care for Sebastian, in a play about gender and sexuality where women fall in love with women pretending to be men, and men fall in love with men who are actually women.

Dinita Gohil and Esh Alladi are a strong Viola and Sebastian in this production, with Kara Tointon a sympathetic Olivia. Adrian Edmondson is Malvolio, who cuts a figure more tragic than comic – much more appropriate I find, as the humorous teasing directed at him soon becomes cruel. The comic trio of Sir Toby Belch, Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Maria (John Hodgkinson, Michael Cochrane and Vivien Parry) lightens the mood with songs fleshed out by composer Nigel Hess.

This production handles the problems and contradictions of Twelfth Night extremely well, and it’s a seasonal joy to boot. Very impressive.

Shakespeare Schools Festival

I love Shakespeare, and I normally like to see professional productions, but every year up and down the country schoolchildren of all ages perform abridged versions of Shakespeare plays on ‘proper’ theatre stages, and I thought this might be interesting. I attended the performance at the Broadway Theatre in Catford (also admittedly because I wanted to see inside this theatre, as I’d only ever visited the studio before).

The plays performed were Julius Caesar, The Tempest and Macbeth, with slightly older children performing the latter. The plays were abridged in such a way that it was still easy to follow the story, and the youngsters had clearly worked hard on their productions. The actors in the lead roles were particularly strong. Overall an enjoyable evening.

Coriolanus

Shakespeare’s rarely-performed 1608 play Coriolanus here forms part of the Roman season, directed by Angus Jackson. I do wonder why it comes right at the end of the season, as it is actually set well before Julius Caesar, but here we are.

The story is of a Roman general, Caius Martius, who wins glory in battle, is given the name ‘Coriolanus,’ and is subsequently asked to play a part in public life. However, he is unused to public speaking and cannot hide his personality or his contempt for ordinary people. Exiled from Rome, he seeks his revenge.

The production stars Sope Dirisu in the title role, a newcomer who is excellent in the part: considered, believable as a fearless warrior and suitably awkward as a politician. Haydn Gwynne is superb as his mother Volumnia, while Hannah Morrish also shines as his wife, Virgilia. James Corrigan ably portrays the Volscian Tullus Aufidius who is Coriolanus’ biggest rival, and there is more than a hint of eroticism in the way the pair react to one another.

The set is modern and minimalist, with an imposing grille to separate the turbulent mob from the ruling class, and sharp lighting to complement the dramatic battle scenes.

It’s not the easiest play to follow, but, as befits the RSC they have done their best to make it as clear as possible, and Coriolanus leaves the audience with lots to think about.

Titus Andronicus

Next in the RSC’s summer Roman season is Titus Andronicus, one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, although it is set after the previous two Shakespeare plays of the season, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. It uses the same set as those plays, but unlike them it is set in the modern day. At first I was unsure about this, wondering if it would have made more sense to have set the play during its original time period in keeping with the rest of the season. However, setting it in the present does emphasise that the events in it are taking place years after those in Caesar and Cleopatra, and it also draws parallels between the events of the play and contemporary politics.

Titus, it must be said, is not one of Shakespeare’s best plays. It’s unsubtle and overblown, and is most famous for its violence, which is not played down in this production. Indeed, the infamous pie scene is probably the most grotesque I’ve ever seen it. However, it certainly shouldn’t be dismissed. It has some compelling characters, foreshadows the themes of some of Shakespeare’s greatest plays, and has a genuine interest of its own. The characters in the play are fictional, but the events which occur are loosely based on real events. It’s interesting that while Roman civilisation and Gothic barbarism are initially contrasted, the Romans are shown to be every bit as brutal as the Goths.

Performing this play as part of the Roman season led me to see parallels between this and the other plays in the season. The triumphant entrance of the General Titus reminded me of the return of Julius Caesar at the beginning of that play, and Antony’s ultimately destructive infatuation with Cleopatra foreshadows emperor Saturninus’ obsession with Tamora.

The play could be described as a bloody revenge tragedy, but to be fair there is more to it., with plenty of political scheming, secret plotting and musings on fate. There are some strong performances from David Troughton as Titus, Hannah Morrish as Lavinia and Nia Gwynne as Tamora. An enjoyable production, superbly directed by Blanche McIntyre, and a must-watch for anyone interested in the whole of the Roman season.